Thursday, June 4, 2015

Eli Sagan's Citizens and Cannibals

Eli Sagan's book, Citizens and Cannibals, is a fascinating theoretical treatise on the meaning of the French Revolution.  Favoring analysis over narrative, Sagan argues that the French Revolution reveals the fault lines of modernity.  According to Sagan, the French Revolution is representative of the anxiety modern men and women feel when they give us Early Modern sources of corporate identity. Following the logic of Marshall Berman's book, All That is Solid Melts Into Air, Sagan maintains that French revolutionaries turned to terror to compensate for the loss of the king, the Catholic church, guilds, and other sources of social and cultural identity. Sagan writes that most people in France accepted the principles of the French Revolution even before it occurred.  Nobles, clergymen, and even the king, all more or less gave up medieval assumptions and joined the bourgeoisie in believing in the rights of individuals and the bourgeois concept of freedom.

According to Sagan, the French Revolution had little or nothing to do with capitalism, which had made few inroads in France by the end of the 18th century, and everything to do with middle class values. The French Revolution was not made by industrialists or great merchants but rather by lawyers. The Revolution was ultimately an expression of a new ethos.  By 1789 most educated people accepted many or perhaps most modern ideas about politics.  Robespierre, for instance, believed in many of the things we believe in.  He hated slavery, favored the separation of church and state, supported progressive taxation, and championed free and universal education.  He believed in civil rights, as they are commonly understood.   Sagan goes so far as to call Robespierre a "moral genius" for his early and eloquent advocacy of so many of the causes we still champion today.  On the other hand, Robespierre, like so many of his contemporaries, hated factionalism.  This hatred was born of a fear that is representative of the widespread fear that accompanied all passages to modernity.

Why was the French Revolution so bloody?  Sagan makes a compelling case that Frenchmen embraced most aspects of modernity but rejected the concept of a loyal ambition.  They believed in individual rights, and Rousseau's famous "general will" of the nation.  What they simply could not abide were factions.  Sagan points out that this suspicion of factions is common even to America's founding fathers.  He also reminds us that France never fully resolved its disgust with factions until DeGaulle renounced the idea of becoming a dictator well over a century later.  With this hatred of factionalism, French revolutionaries were left with no other choice but to annihilate one another.  The stakes were huge:  Girondists knew that they would either kill members of the Mountain, or be killed. Of course, Sagan doesn't let matters wrest there.  He knows that many national histories involved widespread bloodshed, and bloodshed out of all proportion to the struggle for political power.  In France, revolutionaries didn't just kill potential political opponents, but rather killed powerless nobles and other groups.

In the twentieth century, ideological terrorists repeatedly created large groups of people for no reason at all.  The holocaust, for example, cannot be explained by any ordinary logic. The murder of a group of people who offered no resistance to the regime was, strictly speaking, irrational.  How to explain such hysteria?  Sagan offers the plausible argument that Germans, like so many others who encountered modernity, were both exhilarated and terrified by their isolation and freedom. Cannibalism is in a sense the flip side of citizenship.

The logic of modern terror makes sense in a Russian context.  On a narrow level, we see that the Bolsheviks never learned how to deal with factionalism except through radical violence.  On some level, Stalin understood that he would either kill or be killed by political opponents.  Bolsheviks never admitted to themselves that other Bolsheviks had a right to disagree about tactics or ideology in fundamental ways.  The unit of the party and therefore the nation could not be threatened, even if the alternative to disunity was violence.  But more than an explanation for bloody dictatorship, Sagan offers us an understanding of why the Soviet Union embraced violence on such an enormous scale. Sagan offers us an explanation for why there were so many Stalinists in 1930s Russia.  The Russians were hysterical about something.  They required sacrifices to feel better about the earth-shattering, if also exciting, changes they were experiencing.  This is the paradox of the Russian Revolution, a paradox that existed however as early as the French Revolution:  Russians were forging a radical version of equality, but also giving up many of their most familiar sources of social cohesion, including the tsar, the Orthodox Church, the aristocracy, and the peasant commune. How to deal with this level of uncertainty?  Surely violence was chicken soup for the terrified soul.

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