Friday, March 7, 2014


In a recent post, I mentioned above six or seven books that delve into the nature of terror and its relationship to revolution.  I maintained that terror and revolution couldn't be separated, and indeed that terror and modern Russian history couldn't be disentangled.  I would be remiss if I didn't say something about Maximilien Robespierre in this context.  Robespierre, of course, was the both the chief architect and loudest champion of revolutionary violence.  His influence on generations of revolutionaries and would-be revolutionaries is impossible to overestimate.  You can hear shades of Robespierre in Marx, but more especially in Lenin and Trotsky and Mao.  Slavoj Zizek's book on the subject, a collection of Robespierre's most representative speeches, is an excellent introduction to Robespierre.  Virtue and Terror gives Robespierre a chance to speak for himself, without the rancor and condemnation modern historians so often attach to his name.  The unmediated Robespierre is shockingly prescient about the nature of power.  Like Machiavelli, Robespierre seems to have an excellent grasp on politics:  he knows how and why the Committee of Public Safety's Reign of Terror is functioning, and he seems to know also how vulnerable that power is to both internal and external enemies.  One appreciates Robespierre's articulateness.  In the midst of chaos, Robespierre the Incorruptible is able to translate Enlightenment philosophy into a clear governmental program.  One also appreciates Robespierre's boldness:  here is a man who seems to have honestly assessed the costs of revolution.  If one wants to overthrow centuries of despotism, one should be prepared to overthrow God, king, aristocracy, and even peace.  Trotsky, in his 1920 defense of revolutionary violence, Terrorism and Communism, echoes Robespierre's brave logic.  Revolutionary terror is, ironically, the shortest way to peace.  Irresolution in the midst of civil war means a longer civil war, not a shorter one.  Of course, the consequences of Robespierre's ethics have been influential, and their impact on subsequent revolutionary movements far-reaching.

Below are are a few quotations drawn from Robespierre, as presented by Slavoj Zizek.  In a subsequent post, Soviet Roulette will look at Leon Trotsky's Terrorism and Communism.  The similarities between Robespiere and Trotsky demonstrate a clear line of thinking between the two great revolutionaries.

"The theory of revolutionary government is as new as the revolution which brought it into being.  It should not be sought in the books of the political writers, who did not foresee that revolution, nor in the laws of tyrants who, satisfied with abusing their power, are not much concerned with its legitimacy.."

"The function of government is to direct the moral and physical forces of the nation towards the goal of its appointing."

"The goal of constitutional government is to preserve the Republic; that of revolutionary government is to found it."

"Revolution is the war of liberty against its enemies:  the constitution is the system of liberty victorious and at peace."

"Revolutionary government needs extraordinary activity, precisely because it is at war.  It is subject to less uniform and less rigorous rules, because the circumstances in which it exists are stormy and shifting, and above all because it is continual forced to deploy new resources rapidly, to confront new and pressing dangers."

"Revolutionary government owes good citizens full national protection; to enemies of the people it owes nothing but death."

"Temples to the gods are not meant to provide sanctuary for the sacrilegious who come to profane them;  not is the constitution supposed to protect the plots of tyrants who seek to destroy it."

"Above all we must be careful not to kill patriotism by trying to cure it.  Patriotism is ardent by its nature.  Who can love the homeland coldly?"

"The foundation of the French Republic is not a game for children."

"All the vices are fighting for them:  the Republic only has virtues on its side."

"And with what rapidity the seeds of division they throw among us could develop, if we do not hasten to stifle them!"

"And for some time, the foreign courts have been vomiting over France all the cunning scoundrels they have in their pay."

"Yesterday they were murdering the defenders of liberty;  today they are attending their funerals, and demanding divine honours for them..."

"So that France, once illustrious among enslaved countries, eclipsing the glory of all the free peoples that have existed, may become the model for all nations, the terror of oppressors, the consolation of the oppressed, the ornament of the universe;  and that in sealing our work with our blood, we may at least glimpse the shining dawn of universal felicity."

"In the French Revolution's system, that which is immoral is impolitic, that which is corrupting is counter-revolutionary."

"Perhaps the most dangerous reef we have to avoid is not the fervour of excessive zeal, but rather the lassitude of well-being".

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