Home > Europe, Philosophy, Politics > Robespierre or the “Divine Violence” of Terror

Robespierre or the “Divine Violence” of Terror

Slavok Zizek states, at Lacan.com:

When, in 1953, Chou En Lai, the Chinese Prime Minister, was in Geneva for the peace negotiations to end the Korean war, a French journalist asked him what does he think about the French Revolution; Chou replied: “It is still too early to tell.” In a way, he was right: with the disintegration of the “people’s democracies” in the late 1990s, 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 historiographic reception always closely mirrored the twists and turns of political struggles. The identifying mark of all kinds of conservatives is its flat rejection: the French Revolution was a catastrophe from its very beginning, the product of the godless modern mind, it is to be interpreted as God’s punishment for the humanity’s wicked ways, so its traces should be undone as thoroughly as possible. The typical liberal attitude is a differentiated one: its formula is “1789 without 1793.” In short, what the sensitive liberals want is a decaffeinated revolution, a revolution which doesn’t smell of a revolution. Francois Furet and others thus try to deprive the French Revolution of its status as the founding event of modern democracy, relegating it to a historical anomaly: 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 efficiently 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 – you should not shirk from its consequences and gather the courage to say B – the terror needed to really defend and assert the A.

However, it is all too easy to say that today’s Left should simply continue along this path. Something, some kind of historical cut, effectively took place in 1990: everyone, today’s “radical Left” included, is somehow ashamed of the Jacobin legacy of revolutionary terror with its state-centralized character, so that the commonly accepted motto is that the Left, if it is to regain political efficiency, should thoroughly reinvent itself, finally abandoning the so-called “Jacobin paradigm.” In our post-modern era of “emerging properties,” chaotic interaction of multiple subjectivities, of free interaction instead of centralized hierarchy, of a multitude of opinions instead of one Truth, the Jacobin dictatorship is fundamentally “not for our taste” (free the term “taste” should be given all its historical weight, as the name for a basic ideological disposition). Can one imagine something more foreign to our universe of the freedom of opinions, of market competition, of nomadic pluralist interaction, etc., than Robespierre’s politics of Truth (with a capital T, of course), whose proclaimed goal is “to return the destiny of liberty into the hands of the truth”? Such a Truth can only be enforced in a terrorist way:

If the mainspring of popular government in peacetime is virtue, amid revolution it is at the same time virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is impotent. Terror is nothing but prompt, severe, inflexible justice; it is therefore an emanation of virtue. It is less a special principle than a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country’s most pressing needs.

This Robespierre’s line of argumentation reaches its climax in the paradoxical identification of the opposites: revolutionary terror “sublates” the opposition between punishment and clemency – the just and severe punishment of the enemies IS the highest form of clemency, so that, in it, rigor and charity coincide:

To punish the oppressors of humanity is clemency; to pardon them is barbarity. The rigor of tyrants has only rigor for a principle; the rigor of the republican government comes from charity.

What, then, should those who remain faithful to the legacy of the radical Left do with all these?

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Categories: Europe, Philosophy, Politics
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