History
June 6, 2006 6:08 PM   Subscribe

Revisiting The French Revolution. It is not for history to supply us with a sense of history. Life always supplies us with a sense of history. It is for history to supply us with a sense of life.
posted by semmi (30 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
"...the ascent of the mass-murdering nerd—a man who, having read a book, resolves to kill all the people who don’t like it as much as he does. There is a case to be made that the real singularity of the Terror was the first appearance on the stage of history of this particular psychological type: not the tight-lipped inquisitor, alight with religious rage, but the small, fastidious intellectual, the man with an idea, the prototype of Lenin listening to his Beethoven as the Cheka begins its purges. In normal times, such men become college professors, or book reviewers or bloggers. It takes special historical circumstances for them to become killers: the removal of a ruling class without its replacement by a credible new one. In the confusion, their ethereal certainties look like the only solid thing to build on."
posted by semmi at 6:09 PM on June 6, 2006


FrANTs...Frauwnze!
posted by HTuttle at 6:16 PM on June 6, 2006


Revolutions don't happen with clean hands. Neither Robespierre nor Lenin was such a monster as they are painted by -- it is no coincidence -- the ruling classes. Tiresome moralists love to pretend that reactionaries and counter-revolutionaries are not, in fact, far more inclined to commit acts of terror than revolutionaries. In a revolution, there are counter-revolutionary forces that are dealt with by force, one way or another; it becomes a question for the revolutionaries of, literally, kill or be killed. The real history of suppression of revolutions leaves no question as to this. But our dear moralists pretend not to see the differences.
posted by graymouser at 6:44 PM on June 6, 2006


well, that's the idea expressed in the link, graymouser.
posted by delmoi at 7:06 PM on June 6, 2006


It was as if S.D.S. had seized power in Washington in 1968 and Mark Rudd, Abbie Hoffman, Jane Fonda, and two or three ambitious renegade generals were all suddenly trying to run the country, while their followers smoked pot and played Jefferson Airplane records, oscillating between a vague, messianic utopianism and a baleful, apocalyptic vengefulness.

Intresting metaphore.
posted by delmoi at 7:08 PM on June 6, 2006


A contrasting view.

It's still too early to tell, apparently...
posted by Urban Hermit at 7:11 PM on June 6, 2006


I think what bothers people about the french Terror is the fact that the people who died were the rich and powerful and aristocratic, rather then the poor and destitute. Fewer people died in the Reign of Terror then in the Iraq war.
posted by delmoi at 7:13 PM on June 6, 2006


Robespierre had philosophical aims that went beyond the immediate political need to suppress violent sedition in time of war. While its debatable just how much influence he had even within the Committee of Public Safety and the Assembly--both of which went along with him only so long as his actions were useful to them, and brought him down when they ceased to be--he killed a number of French patriots whose reputations were unbesmirched, simply because they disagreed with his vision of the Revolution as a religio-moral project. If he'd mended fences with either Danton's or (less plausibly) Hébert's faction, Thermidor, Napoleon, the Bourbon Restoration--all of that could have been avoided.

That said, I feel that Robespierre gets a bad rap for much the same reason as someone like Caligula--on the surface a very different man--did: even if all the machinery of the Terror is laid upon his shoulders, he still wasn't responsible for very many deaths, but the people whom he did kill were wealthy and influential. The friends and ideological comrades of illiterate peasants don't write histories.
posted by Makoto at 7:15 PM on June 6, 2006


@delmoi

.
posted by sluglicker at 7:43 PM on June 6, 2006


Can someone recommend a good history of the French Revolution that's not Simon Schama's Citizens? 'Cause I've got that and he goes into way to much detail for me.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:54 PM on June 6, 2006


p.s. I read a lot of history. I'm looking for a good, well-written one-volume history, like James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom is for the American Civil War.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:56 PM on June 6, 2006


General history (like Battle Cry, an Oxford history; you rarely go wrong with those)

History via anecdote

A bit of both

History via fiction
posted by Makoto at 8:04 PM on June 6, 2006


When asked of his opinion on the French Revolution Mao said:

"It's too early to tell."
posted by bigmusic at 8:40 PM on June 6, 2006


Can someone recommend a good history of the French Revolution that's not Simon Schama's Citizens?

I put this to an AskMe a couple years ago to only two recommendations, one of them being Simon Schama's Citizens. Being unable to locate either book at the bookstore – I guess I wasn't in the mood for Amazon or something – I wound up reading The Days of The French Revolution (Makoto's third link) and found it plenty serviceable. It's not a super fantastic read but it's interesting enough and covers a lot.
posted by furiousthought at 9:35 PM on June 6, 2006


wasn't the view that "the revolution was the terror" somewhat propelled by de sade? i don't think that ia a view "entrenched by the french historian françois Furet in the nineteen-seventies and eighties" but rather something much longer standing.
posted by 3.2.3 at 10:13 PM on June 6, 2006


I am suspicious of this review because he seems to be using the term "revisionist history" to apply to everything from updated scientific inquiries (figuring out how the dinosaurs died) to historical perspectives (looking at a world event or person within a particular context). All histories are written with a particular thesis or bias in mind.

It was my understanding that the term "revisionist history" actually applies to things like: Tada, the holocaust didn't happen...or...something along the lines of Bill O'Reilly saying Malmedy was the fault of the US.

Am I misreading?
posted by whimsicalnymph at 11:54 PM on June 6, 2006


Urban hermit: well played.
Bigmusic: It was Zhou Enlai, answering Andre Malraux.

It was as if S.D.S. had seized power in Washington in 1968 and Mark Rudd, Abbie Hoffman, Jane Fonda, and two or three ambitious renegade generals were all suddenly trying to run the country, while their followers smoked pot and played Jefferson Airplane records, oscillating between a vague, messianic utopianism and a baleful, apocalyptic vengefulness.

I'm not sure whether it is just an interesting metaphor, or yet more talking down the left from within. I've been taught by recent political campaigns that this is an accurate view of history.

I think what bothers people about the french Terror is the fact that the people who died were the rich and powerful and aristocratic

delmoi, what bothers me about it was the way the Revolution chewed itself up and spit itself out. It was like they gained power, and didn't know when to stop. I don't think this is necessarily as unique as the article suggests -- totalitarian governments are but one outcome of revolution. The touchstones I think of instead are the Cultural Revolution, the Killing Fields, or Rwanda. All seemed to be movements that swept up the populace and propelled themselves forward with little of the hierarchical German efficiency we associate with the Holocaust.

If he'd mended fences with either ... faction, Thermidor, Napoleon, the Bourbon Restoration--all of that could have been avoided.

Precisely. France took decades to sort itself out. It's interesting to think of what would have happened with the revolutions of 1848 -- whether they would have been as ruthlessly opposed, whether they would have happened at all.

Even if all the machinery of the Terror is laid upon his shoulders, he still wasn't responsible for very many deaths, but the people whom he did kill were wealthy and influential. The friends and ideological comrades of illiterate peasants don't write histories.

True, but part of the point of this book seems to be showing how that was recapitulated in city after city.

3.2.3: Certainly in France the Revolution per se, at least from the Third Republic on, was viewed favorably. (La Marseillaise has remained the French anthem that long.) It wasn't until the revisionism that the Revolution itself was implicated as the intellectual underpinning of the Terror. Certainly to some the Revolution was always questionable, Terror or not.
posted by dhartung at 12:22 AM on June 7, 2006


I think what bothers people about the french Terror the fact that the people who died were the rich and powerful and aristocratic, rather then the poor and destitute

Which people would these be? Or are you being ironic?

In any event, the premise is untrue. Plenty of the simple folk got it good and hard. Look up the events in the Vendee, or the rafts at Nantes- guillotines too slow, so they went for mass drowning. Women, children, aged, clergy- oh, it was a right mess.

(The alleged quote about it being too early to tell is also attributed to Chou en Lai- but I've read elsewhere it's a canard.)
posted by IndigoJones at 5:34 AM on June 7, 2006


An excellent piece (as I would expect of Gopnik); this in particular was enlightening:
This sense of beleaguerment helps explain a central mystery of the Terror regime: not how the ideologues kept their hold on the other ideologues but how, despite obvious signs of looniness, they kept their hold on the apparatus of power, on the army and the police. The modern method has usually been for the party or the dictator to have a private source of organized violence, Cheka or S.S., more ruthless than the normal ones. But the Jacobins had no militia or secret police. Andress suggests that, heartbreakingly, an idea of legitimacy, however warped, still seemed to move the French people. The Convention was the accepted source of authority, and soldiers and executioners alike followed its orders to a remarkable degree and accepted its rules and decisions, even as the Revolution turned on the revolutionaries.
It's depressing to see how many people here are willing to justify wholesale murder without trial, but history does seem to inspire bloodlust in people who in real life just sit around reading and talking (and these days tapping at their computer). I stand with my man Herzen:
Herzen is revolted by the central substance of what was being preached by some ofthe best and purest-hearted men of his time, particularly by socialists and utilitarians, namely, that vast suffering in the present must be undergone for the sake of an ineffable felicity in the future, that thousands of innocent men may be forced to die that millions might be happy—battle cries that were common even in those days [the 1840s and '50s], and of which a great deal more has been heard since. The notion that there is a splendid future in store for humanity, that it is guaranteed by history, and that it justifies the most appalling cruelties in the present—this familiar piece of political eschatology, based on belief in inevitable progress, seemed to him a fatal doctrine directed against human life.

—Isaiah Berlin, "Alexander Herzen" (Northcliffe Lecture 1954, published 1955)
For those of you who say it wasn't "very many deaths": "Herzen replies that to think in these terms is a great vulgarity, the vulgarity of mere numbers. The death of a single human being is no less absurd and unintelligible than the death of the entire human race..." And for those of you complacently saying it was only the "wealthy and influential" who were killed, aside from the morally grotesque notion that a victim's possession of money somehow makes murder acceptable, you're just plain wrong. Try reading Urban Hermit's link: "It has been loosely assumed . . . that most of the other victims were... aristocrats—an assumption that for some curious reason is often supposed to mitigate these crimes. Very few victims were, in fact, of the former nobility—less than thirty out of the fifteen hundred who were killed.” And:
In the Vendéan massacre, recounts Schama, “Every atrocity the time could imagine was meted out to the defenseless population. Women were routinely raped, children killed, both mutilated. . . . At Gonnord . . . two hundred old people, along with mothers and children, [were forced] to kneel in front of a large pit they had dug; they were then shot so as to tumble into their own grave. . . . Thirty children and two women were buried alive when earth was shoveled onto the pit.” In Paris, Loomis writes, Robespierre ordered the kangaroo court, known as the Revolutionary Tribunal, to be “as active as crime itself and conclude every case within twenty-four hours.” “The victims were shepherded to the courtroom in the morning and, no matter how many of them there might be, their fate was settled by no later than two in the afternoon of that same day. By three o’clock their hair had been cut, their hands bound and they were in the death carts on their way to the scaffold.” “Between June 10 and July 27 [1793] . . . 1,366 victims perished.” Most of these people were innocent of any crime and were unable to defend themselves against accusations of which they were not even informed.
But hey, it's all for the sake of the Glorious Future, so let us celebrate it, Citizen!
posted by languagehat at 5:47 AM on June 7, 2006 [1 favorite]


(Apologies to DHartung, missed your small print. I've heard it as Malraux, but also as Kissinger. Never seen the actual source, though, have you?)

On preview- what languagehat said.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:55 AM on June 7, 2006


Thanks for the recommendations Makoto.
posted by kirkaracha at 6:46 AM on June 7, 2006


Very interesting.
posted by caddis at 7:48 AM on June 7, 2006


I agree, lh, but I'm still glad for Gopnik's piece and I'd like to read the Andress book because it seems to address something that keeps coming up in contemporary political discourse and doesn't get addressed enough, which is the intention behind the terror. I've got no easy answer to the question, but the comparison, for instance, between USSR communism and Nazism, between Stalin and Hitler, seems to me facile. The equation is based on results, sure, and that may be (in fact, is) the most important thing when we're talking about justice, but fails to account for the impulse between the two totalitarianisms.

Is a desire for a utopian future in which all are treated equally and fairly the same as the desire for a racially pure enclave based on genetic elitism and eugenics if the end with similar camps and slaughters? My feeling is that they aren't equivalent, and that a multitude of sins get covered up when they're equated, especially when we retreat from the absolute ends that are so easy to condemn. In other words, it seems to serve evil purposes to equate left and right terrors without taking into account their origins because it's easy to see that a terror is wrong, but also easy to argue a kind of moral equivalence between fascism and communism which I think serves fascism far more than it does fairness. But it's an issue I struggle with philosophically.
posted by OmieWise at 8:42 AM on June 7, 2006


I agree, lh, but...

Not sure where the "but" comes into it; I'm always grateful for a Gopnik piece, and I had no problem with this one.

a desire for a utopian future in which all are treated equally and fairly


But this is not the impulse behind communism, and it increasingly irritates me to see how people cling to the idea that communism, and communists, are somehow noble (and above criticism, or at least undeserving of being mentioned in the same breath with those evil Nazis) because they mouth slogans about equality and brotherhood. Ask anyone who lived under an actual communist regime how much those slogans reflected reality. You might as well take the Bushies' slogans about Freedom literally (or for that matter the Nazis' slogans about family and church). The defining feature of communism is the emphasis it places on the role of the vanguard party, which knows the direction of history and thus is justified in telling everyone else what to do and imprisoning, exiling, or killing them if they don't do it. It grows out of the worst, most authoritarian impulses of humanity; there is nothing redeeming about it. To fall for the seductive music of the slogans (or for that matter the music itself: the "Internationale" is a glorious song) is to give up the hard work of rational analysis and give in to the lure of dreams. Dreams can kill; nobody knew that better than Herzen, who was personally acquainted with Marx and the other German authoritarian socialists and despised them all. I urge you to read him; there are good translations of both My Past and Thoughts [Byloe i dumy] and From the Other Shore [S togo berega], and here's a nice online piece about him.

If I sound harsh, it's because I spent part of my youth under the spell of the lefty myths (the nobility of the Spanish Republic, the innocence of Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs, the revolutionary glamor of Russia and China), and while I honor the impulses that tempt us to cling to the myths, I can't really see that there's much excuse to do so any longer. The evidence is in, folks; Alger and Julius were guilty, Stalin was in essence running the Republic, and Communism is a rotten political ideal.
posted by languagehat at 10:48 AM on June 7, 2006


Good read. Lots of counterpoints to some ideas under discussion lately. Interesting.

From the article:
“it didn’t matter what the ideology was... reason cannot stop us from devouring each other.”
I don’t know that Burke was really refuted here, perhaps how other folks have interpreted or reiterated his work, but central to his thinking is gradual reform rather than revolution (with certain exceptions). That and the abstract ideas of the French revolutionaries looked rational, but didn’t take into account practical realities.
It always seems to be the guys who say “Hey I’ve got a great new idea/perspective/etc. that’s going to change everything!” that seem to get people to kill by the truckload.
I agree with some of what Paine says as well, but the French revolutionaries he was defending imprisoned him and he only narrowly escaped execution.
Practical realities.


“The friends and ideological comrades of illiterate peasants don't write histories.”

True. To be fair- they’re rarely the ones who start the trouble in the first place.

People seem to kill to prove they’re powerful. I think Ghandi is an excellent counterexample. At some level, the killing is meaningless (in terms of power), and indeed, that is perhaps why it goes on, because it must continually be reasserted.
No more killings, the people stop cheering like the dutiful witnesses to the exertion of power they were.
Then what happens? How do you know you’re really in charge then? What then of our glorious future?

Like the monkeys we are, we often equate the amount of destruction we can do, with how powerful we are.
At least gorillas only tear up a few trees to get laid.


/I dunno though, put some of the Enron guys or the S&L Scandal bastards into a guillotine - I can’t say I wouldn’t be tempted.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:41 AM on June 7, 2006


languagehat writes "The evidence is in, folks; Alger and Julius were guilty, Stalin was in essence running the Republic, and Communism is a rotten political ideal."

Again, I'm there with you. Probably the defining intellectual and political moment of my youth was reading Homage to Catalonia, Darkness at Noon and The God That Failed all in the same month, and then following them with Koestler's autobiography and Langston Hughes'. (Although you're right that I've not yet read Herzen, and have been meaning to for several years after reading the many glosses on him in Frank's bio of Dostoevsky.) Still, and perhaps this is just my own failure to admit to failure, what I'm trying to tease out is the difference in impulse between Marxism and Fascism. Maybe it doesn't matter, you seem to be suggesting that it doesn't matter, that there is no essential difference in impulse, that it does, in fact, come down simply to the will to power. But even rejecting outright any teleology of history, which I certain do, is there nothing to distinguish them aside from the color of the shirts?
posted by OmieWise at 11:53 AM on June 7, 2006


is there nothing to distinguish them aside from the color of the shirts?

Well, of course. There's lots to distinguish them, and distinguishing them is important (Distinguo!); they are based on different premises and tend to appeal to different types of people. My point is that there's nothing to distinguish them morally; all political/philosophical systems that accept and (in essence) require the murder of people who have committed no crimes are morally equivalent and to be condemned out of hand. Just as the type of conservative who might be drawn to the solutions offered by fascism has to take particular care to shun them, we of the "progressive" faction (how I've come to hate that term!—but what else is there?) have to take care to avoid the seductions of communism. It seems so logical: history demands the eventual equality of mankind, all we need to do is help it along, apply a little pressure, a little direction... Retro me, Satana!
posted by languagehat at 1:54 PM on June 7, 2006


A great link and heartening to read a serious discussion from people with differing views that resists the tendency for wild arguments. A big pat on the back for post and comments (or is it just that the trollers are wary of joining a debate on what might seem to them an esoteric subject?).

Could anyoneone recommend other stuff by Gopnick please?
posted by Gratishades at 4:48 PM on June 7, 2006


Gopnik's book of essays Paris to the Moon is wonderful (about France and his family's stay there); I've recommended some of his essays (and quoted chunks) here, here, here, and here (self-links).

Oh, and OmieWise, you should also read Kropotkin's Memoirs of a Revolutionist—it's the best, well, memoir of a revolutionist I've read, funny and exciting and wise.
posted by languagehat at 5:51 PM on June 7, 2006


Makato is right. Doyle's good. Oxford always turns out something you can get the facts from. Sometimes the OUP titles turn out to be great.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:55 PM on June 7, 2006


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