Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Luk√°cs

Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Terrorism of Counter-revolution

One of the oldest objections to the idea of socialist revolution in the modern world is that such events are inevitably bloody affairs - that whatever the good intentions behind them, they are predetermined to end up bloodbaths. No matter how bloody the capitalist system is - how many wars get waged, how many poor people starve to death - mention the idea of overthrowing this system and for most people instantly the image of a bloodthirsty dictatorship comes to mind. Common sense tells us: far better to constructively attempt piecemeal social reform than risk destroying everything we have gained so far through revolution.

Why is this? In England, for example, we have not experienced a revolution for over 350 years - street names and the odd statue can now safely be devoted to Oliver Cromwell. For many English (if not Irish) intellectuals, Cromwell is still held up as a democrat. Yet the spectre of the Great French Revolution - or rather of the Great Terror of Paris, 1793-4 - still hangs like a nightmare over the brains of the living in the West. Thanks to the literary powers of Thomas Carlyle and Charles Dickens in the nineteenth century, the image most people in England still have of 'revolution' is the guillotine. Few French intellectuals today would rally to Robespierre's defence - there are few streets or statues devoted to him, even more than two centuries after his 'reign of virtue'.

Yet as Mark Twain once pointed out, in France 'there were two reigns of terror; one lasted several months, the other 1,000 years'. Few remember the brutality and acts of terrorism waged against law breakers under the Ancien Regime of Louis XVI in France. There were no 'Scarlet Pimpernels' eager to save poor French peasants who were found stealing from being hung - after all, where is the excitement and drama in that?

Traditionally, liberal French historians proudly defended the Terror of the Jacobin Republic, noting the dire circumstances the Revolution faced in 1793 with war abroad and counter-revolution at home (especially revolt in the Vendee). Aristocrats were organising plots to try to restore the old monarchical order, and if sometimes the violence got a bit out of hand - well, it was the old regime's fault for not educating the 'multitude' of people - the 'mob' - before the revolution broke out. They pointed out that Robespierre was no bloodthirsty psychopath - but in fact a brilliant educated lawyer who had opposed the death penalty when it existed in 1789.

However, for the last twenty years or so it has been fashionable for liberals to portray the Terror of the Jacobin Republic as something irrational that stemmed from what Francois Furet has called the 'egalitarian fanaticism' of the French revolutionaries. This idea is not new - in the 1870s, the conservative Taine put the violence down to the Jacobins' 'pernicious doctrine of the sovereignty of the people'. Furet for example points out that the worst of the Terror took place after the most dangerous threat from royalist counter-revolution had been defeated. Leave aside the Terror in places like the Vendeee - which was in part a response to vicious White Terror - and lets look at Paris during the Great Terror of June - July 1794...

On the face of it - this period of Terror - the famous Great Terror- organised by Robespierre who was by now ruling essentially as a dictator was completely irrational. Over 800 people went to their deaths in this two month period in Paris - thats well over ten people getting guillotined as 'suspects', 'enemies of the people' every day - mostly without much by the way of a trial. The high standards of revolutionary justice which prevailed under most of the Jacobin's rule was sacrificed after the draconian Law of 22 Prairial.

Yet the current liberal explanation that stresses that this bloodbath took place because of Robespierre's ideological devotion to the 'people's will' above plurality of representation is inadequate. What is downplayed in this account is the awkward fact that many of the victims of this period of Robespierre's 'reign of terror' were not rich aristocrats but actually devout revolutionaries (like the Herbertistes) who also agreed with Rousseau's concept of the General Will, but wanted not just political equality like Robespierre but also social and economic equality.

To understand why Robespierre sent so many other revolutionaries to their graves in this period, it is important to look at the material base as well as the discursive ideology of terrorism. While Robespierre spoke of how 'without virtue, terror is useless; without terror, virtue is powerless', the reality was that he was not prepared to let the virtuous poor of Paris take power themselves. He could not imagine a society structured without private property, without class - and so Robespierre crushed the democratic organisations of the urban poor of Paris (the sans-culottes), and murdered their leaders. Such violence was inevitable as the revolutionary wave subsided, and the middle class felt confident enough to want their old privileges back. As Chris Harman notes, 'the terror came to function not only to defend the revolution, but also to symbolise the way in which the state was being centralised by a political group balancing between the masses and the conciliatory elements in the bourgeoisie.' This clampdown was seen as a 'historical necessity' by liberals traditionally, - after all, the French Revolution was a bourgeois revolution and when the masses had been used to fight the old order, now needed to be reminded of their place in society.

Once 'the Great Terror' was over - and Robespierre himself guillotined as Thermidorean reactionaries took control, a new white terror was therefore unleashed on former revolutionaries of all stripe. Such violence is inevitable when a tiny minority of society have to preserve their power and property from the majority.

A few things stand out:

1) 'No ruling class hands over its power without a fight' (Karl Marx). Revolutions begin with flowers - overwhelmingly peacefully. The storming of the Bastille for example saw the Parisien masses make their forcible entrace onto the stage of history but left only a handful dead. Real violence in revolutions only comes later, when the old order try to restore what they have lost. It was the aristocracy of France who made alliances with regimes across Europe after 1789 to plunge France into bloody civil war which made the Terror inevitable for national defence. The worst instances of terror only took place where the old order made their most serious violent challenge to the new order - in the South West of France for example. Marx's point is also true of the new bourgeois ruling elites who used force to make sure that the sans-culottes did not get 'ideas above their station'.

2) 'Those who make half a revolution dig their own grave' (St Just). The old order are prepared to use more violence and exact brutal revenge if they are given the opportunity. The bourgeois leaders of the French Revolution (including Robespierre and St Just himself) found this out to their cost - clamping down on the democratic organisations to their Left only to then be left unable to call upon the masses when faced with the return of old enemies to their Right.

3)We need to keep the violence of the terror in perspective. Donald Greer estimated that overall 16,600 people were killed in the whole of France (including a total of just over 2,000 in Paris) after being sentenced to death by revolutionary courts of justice over two years from 1793-4. While the aristocracy and clergy were hit hard, victims came from all sections of the population. Yet eighty years later, in 1871, more than double that total were killed in Paris alone in a far shorter time as the Paris Commune was drowned in blood by counter-revolution.

Edit: To add this, a reminder to myself to read a lot more about bourgeois revolutions and historical materialism...

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