Saturday, October 14, 2017

Terror in Perspective by Sophie Wahnich

[First I rely on an except from Zizek’s forward to give readers a sense of what’s going on in Wahnich’s book.]

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 to 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 the 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 interpreted as God’s judgment 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 sensible people want is a decaffeinated revolution, a revolution that does not smell of a revolution. Francois Furet proposes 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 French 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’etat 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 – that 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 found 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 the well-known cynical wisdom: better corruption than ethical purity, better a direct lust for power than obsession with one’s mission.

Wahnich’s book systematically undermines this predominant doxa. In a detailed historical analysis of the stages of Jacobin Terror, she first demonstrates how this Terror was not an uncontrolled explosion of destructive madness, but a precisely planned and controlled attempt to prevent such an explosion. She does what Furet wanted to do, but from the opposite  perspective: instead of denouncing Terror as an outburst of some eternal ‘totalitarian’ which explodes from time to time (millenarian peasants’ revolts, twentieth century communist revolutions . . .), Wahnick provides its historical context, resuscitating all the dramatic tenor of the revolutionary process. And then, in a detailed comparison between French Revolutionary Terror and recent fundamentalist terrorism, she renders visible their radical discontinuity, especially the gap that separates their underlying notions of justice. The first step towards correct politics is to break with false symmetries and similarities.

However, what is much more interesting is that, beneath all these diverging opinions, there seems to be a shared perception that 1989 marks the end of the epoch which began in 1789 – the end of a certain ‘paradigm’, as we like to put it today: the paradigm of a revolutionary process that is focused on taking over state power and then using this power as a lever to accomplish global transformation. Even the ‘postmodern’ Left (from Antonio Negri to John Holloway) emphasizes that a new revolution should break with this fetishization of state power as the ultimate prize and focus on the much deeper ‘molecular’ level of transforming daily practices. It is at this point that Wahnick’s book intervenes: its underlying  message is that this shift to ‘molecular’ activities outside the scope of state power is in itself a symptom of the Left’s crisis, and indication  that today’s Left (in the developed countries) is not ready to confront the topic of violence in all its ambiguity – a topic which is usually obfuscated by the fetish of “Terror”. This ambiguity was clearly described more than a century ago by Mark Twain, who wrote apropos of the French Revolution in “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”:

There were two ‘Reigns of Terror’ if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other lasted a thousand years . .,. Our shudders are all for the ‘horrors’ of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe, compared with life-long death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heart-break? . . .A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by the brief Terror which we have all have been so diligently taught to shiver and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror  - that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us have been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.

[The ‘Reign of Terror’ was a controlled response to the threat and dread evoked by the success of counter-revolutionary forces 
as well as in in-discriminant slaughter of the guilty and innocent alike in the September massacres. The rage of the people had to be channeled, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen had to be defended. The principle of equality- not so much in the egalitarian sense- but in the sense of the full participation of each individual- whether poor or rich- in the sovereignty of the  State, that politics is the home of liberty- and freedom is the condition where each plays the role of guarantor of the say of others. ‘L’etat c’est moi ‘ writ large. You may not be able to petition God to any effect, but you must be free to petition the State. Wapnich contrasts this notion of freedom to that which conceives itself as let loose from the strictures, responsibilities and risks of a political life, with all the indifference to the fate of our fellow citizens that entails. Thus, Wahnich writes:

The passion of the revolutionaries was not passion for the poor, but rather passion for declared, inviolable and sacred rights, the passion for justice and equality (in politics). These were the values, rather than homogenizing egalitarianism, that founded human identity as an identity in which life was worth nothing if there was no respect for the rights that transformed it into a universal political existence.

With Thermidor, citizens had to renounce the expression of their point of view; they no longer had access to the political logos. In terms of the deputy Rouzet, ‘the citizens must not be tempted to substitute reasoning for he submission he owes to the law.’ Ejection of the revolutionary democratic model in which, in the face of the governments that were always assumed to be fallible, each citizen was responsible for maintain the rights of man and the citizen, was the Thermidorian characteristic. It was accompanied by rejection of universal suffrage, and those reforms of civil law that led to more egalitarian practices between men and women, as well as among heirs with a view to reducing the disparities of wealth that resulted from birth. .  .

Thermidor inaugurated for our age the reign of emotional victimhood. If there was competition, it was no longer to produce a hierarchy of heroes or martyrs, but rather a hierarchy of victims. Only those who had suffered by losing a loved one to the guillotine could drown their sorrows at certain balls reserved for them, where they aestheticized their status by wearing the famous thread of red silk against their bare necks. . .

Anger and justice were  the key words of the ‘terror-response’ of the French Revolutionaries, as they are today, but the forms and sites of profaned  sacrality have fundamentally changed. Where formerly it was an attack on the body that represented the political project, represented the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizens [inscribed on the dead body of the murdered Marat, for example], which called for heroism in the face of profanation, now it is an attack on the body that represents a humanism outside of politics which presupposes this resort to heroism.* These bodies divested of their responsibility for common political existence are the effective representation of the American political project – a project that assumes that the veritable mode of liberty consists in no longer acknowledging any such responsibility [as if no fault or guilt could possibly be attached to what went on in the World Trade Center before it was utterly destroyed]. This absence of knowledge leads to a disinterest in the lives of others, in their equal or unequal value. The desire to promote equality in free action on a cosmopolitan scale now appears inconceivable. . .

Nowadays, it does not matter which body is cruelly affected and for what reason; the only worthwhile thing is the ‘beautiful day of life’,  whatever this might be. To destroy it always means producing a victim and becoming guilty. Walter Benjamin protested this kind of morality. In his text on violence and la, in fact, Benjamin criticized a ‘theorem’ that has become a virtual rule in the west, namely

“the sanctity of life, which they either apply to all animal and even vegetable life, or limit to human life. Their argument, exemplified in an extreme case by the revolutionary killing of an oppressor, runs as follows: ‘If I do not kill, I shall never establish the world dominion of justice . . .that is the argument of the intelligent terrorist . . . We, however, profess that higher even than  the happiness and justice of existence stands existence itself. . .but the proposition that existence stands higher than  just existence is false and ignominious, if existence is to mean nothing other than mere life . . . Man cannot, at any price, be said to coincide with the mere life in him, any more than it can be aid to coincide with any other of his conditions and qualities, including even the uniqueness of his bodily person.”

It is the theory of an ordinary humanity founded on an indescribable or undiscoverable citizenship,[ that citizenship which, in truth, is the foundation of liberty].

 *of the police and first respondors or those victims and loved ones who become the objects of ‘our thoughts and prayers’

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