French Revolution

When, in 1953, Zhou En Lai, the Chinese premier, was in Geneva for the peace negotiations to end the Korean war, a French journalist asked him what he thought about the French Revolution; Chou replied: ‘It is still too early to tell.’ The events of 1990 proved him spectacularly right: with the disintegration of the ‘people’s democracies’, the struggle for the historical place of the French Revolution flared up again. The liberal revisionists tried to impose the notion that the demise of communism in 1989 occurred at exactly the right moment: it marked the end of the era which began in 1789, the final failure of the statist-revolutionary model which first entered the scene with the Jacobins.

Nowhere is the dictum ‘every history is a history of the present’ more true than in the case of the French Revolution: its historiographical reception has always closely mirrored the twists and turns of later political struggles. The identifying mark of all kinds of conservatives is a predictably flat rejection: the French Revolution was a catastrophe from its very beginning. The product of the godless modern mind, it is at the same time to be interpreted as God’s judgement on humanity’s wicked ways – so its traces should of course be kicked over as thoroughly as possible. The typical liberal attitude is a more differentiated one: its formula is ‘1789 without 1793’. In short, what the sensitive liberals want is a decaffeinated revolution, a revolution which does not smell of a revolution. François Furet proposed another liberal approach: he tried to deprive the French Revolution of its status as the founding event of modern democracy, relegating it to a historical anomaly. In short, Furet’s aim was to de-eventalize the Franch Revolution: it is no longer (as for a tradition stemming from Kant and Hegel) the defining moment of modernity, but a local accident with no global significance, one conditioned by the specifically French tradition of absolute monarchy. Jacobin state centralism is only possible, then, against the background of the ‘L’état c’est moi’ of Louis XIV. There was a historical necessity to assert the modern principles of personal freedom, etc., but – as the English example demonstrates – the same could have been much more effectively achieved in a more peaceful way . . . Radicals are, on the contrary, possessed by what Alain Badiou called the ‘passion of the Real’: if you say A – equality, human rights and freedoms – then you should not shirk its consequences but instead gather the courage to say B – the terror needed to really defend and assert A.

Both liberal and conservative critics of the French Revolution present it as a founding event of modern ‘totalitarianism’: the taproot of all the worst evils of the twentieth century – the Holocaust, the Gulag, up to the 9/11 attacks – is to be sought in the Jacobin ‘Reign of Terror’. The perpetrators of Jacobin crimes are either denounced as bloodthirsty monsters, or, in a more nuanced approach, one admits that they were personally honest and pure, but then adds that this very feature made their fanaticism all the more dangerous. The conclusion is thus well-known cynical wisdom: better corruption than ethical purity, better a direct lust for power than obsession with one’s mission.

(Recall how, decades ago, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, one of the US foreign policy ideologists, drew a distinction between Rightist authoritarianism and Leftist totalitarianism, privileging the first: precisely because Rightist authoritarian leaders care only about their power and wealth, they are much less dangerous than the fanatical Leftists who are ready to risk their lives for their cause. Is this distinction not at work today, in the way US privileges a corrupt authoritarianism in Saudi Arabia over Iran’s fundamentalism?)

from Slavoj Zizek’s foreword: “The Dark Matter of Violence, or, Putting Terror in Perspective” in the book “In Defence of The Terror” by Sophie Wahnich


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