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In Defense of Jacobin Rage

You can’t divorce fiery emotions from the politics of revolution.

A statue of Brutus loomed large at the trial of King Louis XVI. Brutus was, after all, a coveted celebrity and his figure commanded a vantage point that looked down upon the revolutionaries and the ruined royal.

It is difficult to say which Brutus: was it Marcus, the legendary assassin of Caesar, immortalized by Plutarch, dramatized by Shakespeare? Or was it Lucius Junius, who not only founded the Roman Republic around 509 BC, but condemned his own sons to death for attempting to overthrow it (a story brought to life spectacularly by Jacobin artist Jacques-Louis David in his 1789 neo-classical masterpiece The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons)?

Both Brutuses of the ancient republican epic were celebrated across the political divide in 1790s France, and it should not be surprising that the cultural landscape of the French Revolution was heavily populated with references to them. These heroic sentinels of Rome were emblems of the republican commitment to liberty, and an overload of catechisms, letters, pamphlets, treatises, and songs waxed lyrical about the example of their luminous virtue.

In reality, the granite magistrate was both Lucius and Marcus. The revolutionary years had, in fact, witnessed something of an amalgamation of the two into one singular exemplary character, and the Jacobins in particular were fantastically passionate in their praise of the compound Roman. The image of Brutus was ubiquitous and regularly found itself the symbolic garnish of their clubs and societies throughout the nation. One evening in December 1792 at the Club on rue St Jacques in Paris, after having been asked to remove a bust of the politically moderate Mirabeau, Maximilien Robespierre agreed to do so, declaring: ‘I see only two men worthy of our homage, Brutus and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’.

For the Incorruptible, it was they who possessed “unalterable zeal” for the defense of humanity. Indeed, Rousseau himself had celebrated the civic virtue of Lucius Junius Brutus. For the Citizen of Geneva, Brutus was the paradigm of virtue, displayed by his herculean commitment to the defense of the RomanRepublic, which contrasted sharply, Rousseau argued in his Last Reply, with the weak gentleness that derives from “indifference for good and evil.”

What was it about Brutus that the Jacobins found so compelling? As it is usually understood, Jacobin republicanism was defined by a core set of ideological beliefs: it celebrated what it saw as the emancipatory virtues of the unified state and its role in defining the common good, it embraced a politics of egalitarianism, was indubitably committed to the ideals of patriotism and popular sovereignty, and its interpretation of internationalism was a one-way conviction in the Promethean nature of the French nation; a broadcaster rather than receiver of moral wisdom.

But Jacobinism was not simply a political doctrine, concerned with the arrangements of state and the nature of political and social institutions. It was also a scrupulously defined moral code, a way of behaving as much as a way of thinking. In the words of nineteenth-century republican Jules Ferry, it appeared “sometimes as a sentiment, and sometimes as a system.” It is this sentimental, moral side that we have forgotten, and it is in recalling this that the obsession with Brutus is brought back into sharp relief.

The statue of Brutus stood in the converted manège in which the trial of the King took place as a stark reminder that anger, hatred of tyranny, and its logical inverse, love of liberty — all of them virtuous sentiments — were the essential physiognomies of a republican’s moral disposition. Both Brutuses, in whatever form they have taken — Plutarchian or Shakespearian — were defined by these powerful emotions, which seemed so essential to the defense of their Republics. “Hatred of tyranny” (Haine de la tyrannie) became a central feature of republicanism, and while the Jacobins were not the only ones to feel emotion, they incorporated it into their wider political doctrine and strategies in a way that their ideological rivals never did.

It’s important to note that this republican hare was not private in nature, but instead spoke to the public and political spheres. At the trial of Louis XVI, for instance, Robespierre refuted the notion that his hatred was personal when he proclaimed that he had “neither love nor hate for Louis; I hate only his crimes.” Saint-Just made a similar point when he contended that “The people, good and credulous, without ambition and without intrigue, would never have hated the prince, if the prince had respected its laws and had governed with probity.” Hatred, then, was not directed towards Louis Capet the person, but was stirred and trained towards Louis XVI the monarch. Later on, in a passionate invective aimed at those who wished to stay the hand of Sanson the executioner, Robespierre exclaimed how “The hatred of tyrants and love of humanity have a common source in the heart of the just man who loves his country.”

Emotion, then, is crucial for understanding Jacobinism, and, consequently, the vector of the FirstFrenchRepublic (1792–1804). In Sophie Wahnich’s In Defence of the Terror: Liberty or Death in the French Revolution, it is through the primary emotions of anger, hate and love that she develops a provocative, and highly seductive, interpretation of what is known as the Terror. The Terror was the centrepiece of the revolutionary epic, and its origins and nature continue to fascinate, and frustrate, students of France. Many have understood the violent maelstrom that swept across the country between September 1793 and July 1794 as a momentary deviation, a consequence ensuing from civil war, foreign invasion, and institutional collapse. Another interpretation, associated with the conservative liberal tradition of Edmund Burke, and the late François Furet, argues that the bedlam and violence dwelt within the genetic code of revolution itself.

It is this latter reading that has become the dominant narrative, both in the academy and in the public imagination. Consequently, two things have occurred. First, we are, as Wahnich writes, “no longer in an age in which different standpoints argue over an event that resists interpretation, but rather one of unquestioned detestation of the event.” Our default position has become one of lazy dismissal: with all of the blood and brutality, how could we, why would we, want to consider the Terror as anything but a horror show?

Second, over the years the Terror and its Jacobin patrons are largely seen as the progenitors to those murderous regimes of our own world. The Gulag, the Holocaust, 9/11 and the shadowy specter of Islamic extremism: these constitute its hideous modern avatars. The logic of the Terror (if there was such a thing) has, it is customarily argued, no seeming connection to the establishment of democracy, and is deployed only as the beginnings of what many see as an unmistakable genealogy of terror — from Robespierre to al Qaeda, by way of Stalin and Pol Pot.

It was not always this way. The Resistance to the Nazi occupation of France in the Second World War gave the French cause to celebrate its revolutionary and Jacobin heritage, a counter-model to Vichy and the collective shame of indifference or, more seriously still, collaboration. The Resistance was shot through with the emotional threads that defined Jacobinism. After all, it was elements of anger, hatred, love, and vengeance that were necessary to perform anything from the slightest acts of defiance to those ruthless moments of armed combat. But by 1989, the Bicentenary of the French Revolution, the Jacobins, and this revolutionary tradition, were shunned in favor of their more tolerable brethren, such as Condorcet — symbolically interred in the Pantheon that same year.

Nowadays, Wahnich explains, “disgust” at the Revolution, the Terror, and the Jacobins in particular is driven by “idealization” of the present democratic model of politics. The dominant attitude in liberal societies is that our political model protects the individual, whereas theirs promoted an abstract sovereignty of the people; we base our public deliberations on reckoning, and compromise, they, on the other hand, sought only a total(itarian) politics piloted by first principles; crime and punishment is now conducted within the parameters of positive laws, back then justice was understood to emanate from nature herself; we are reasonable and sagacious, whereas they were just extreme and dangerous, and we have said goodbye to all of that. The point of Wahnich’s little book is to give another account of the Terror that might make us rethink all of these assumptions.

From the outset, however, there are two problems. The book itself was originally published in French in 2003 as La Liberté ou la mort: Essai sur la Terreur et le terrorisme. Unlike the title of the English version, there is nothing here to suggest that Wahnich’s plan is to mount a straight-up defense of the Terror or terrorism. While Verso’s title might be a tremendously arresting one, it is also a little misleading.

A second, and more serious problem comes in the form of a puzzling, digressive, and positively schizophrenic foreword by the enfant terrible of the intellectual Left, Slavoj Žižek. Perhaps we should not be surprised that a controversial book like this is accompanied by a set of introductory remarks from an equally controversial figure. We must also bear in mind Verso’s strong association with Žižek, and remember that we have been here before. In 2007 he provided the introduction to a collection of selected texts by Robespierre (part of Verso’s Revolutions series), and if those previous remarks were a tragedy, his comments here are a borderline farce.

He begins in typically hyperbolic fashion, stating that this is “the” book we have been waiting for on the French Revolution. It is hard to take Žižek seriously at this point, primarily because the Revolution is almost entirely absent from what follows in his comments. Instead, we are given a discussion of Larysa Kondracki’s film The Whistleblower (2010), followed by observations on the relationship between Gaddafi’s Libya and Western governments; war and the illegal exploitation of natural resources in the Congo; the predictable critique of capitalism; and, most inexplicably, a treatise on the recent Ralph Fiennes film Coriolanus (2012) during which Žižek discusses the similarities between Gerard Butler’s role of Aufidius, and his previous role as Leonidas in Zack Snyder’s effects-heavy 300 (2006).

Some people may find his jocular style entertaining, a refreshing example of writing and argumentation liberated from the rigid formalism of academic prose, and laced with a subversive quality. And it’s certainly the case that he is on much more confident and impressive form elsewhere, attacking and harassing the structures of capitalism, or dissecting the philosophical intricacies of Hegel and Lacan.

But a book as complex and theoretical as this, on a subject as difficult and demanding as the Terror, requires a little clarity to help guide the reader. In this instance, Žižek has no such clarity to offer, only a stitching together of disparate themes that will leave most people dazed and confused. Yet, aside from its loose translation of the original title, and the decision to appoint someone demonstrably unsuitable as master of ceremonies, Verso should be praised for presenting this historiographically bold and heterodox thesis to an English-reading audience.

Wahnich’s argument turns on the September Massacres that took place in 1792. At that time, France found itself in a state of paranoia. The overthrow of the monarchy had led to extreme ambiguity as to who was in charge, or to put it in the revolutionary vernacular, who was sovereign? At the same time, the imperial armies of Austria and Prussia had breached the nation’s borders, and were stampeding towards Paris, resolute in their task of ending the revolution. Fear and confusion became the order of the day, and, as a result, “sudden Courts of Wild-Justice,” as Thomas Carlyle later wrote, gripped the capital.

Mobs flooded the jam-packed prisons — those ateliers of sedition — cutting down individuals detained as counterrevolutionaries for fear they might give aid and comfort to the royal invaders. Thousands of aristocrats, political prisoners, priests, and Swiss guards were executed in a devastating carnage by the sans-culottes.

Why such violence? Wahnich argues that the people — think of those moustache-sporting artisans and workers described so vividly by Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities — considered the National Assembly to constitute a sort of institutional transistor that would receive and acknowledge their fears and their anger. It was hoped that it would then translate these emotions into an appropriate response by enacting vengeance against those who would try to rob the nation of its revolutionary endeavours. But at this point, in the late summer of 1792, the Assembly’s political antennae proved unreceptive to the prevalent effroi. Nothing happened. No vengeance, no help. It was therefore down to the people – the Indignant — to implement what Wahnich calls the “sovereign vengeance.”

As Wahnich has it, the Terror was a subsequent attempt to translate these popular emotions of anger, hatred, and fear, into laws and symbolic orders, by taking vengeance out of the hands of the people, and placing it into those of the state. For instance, the Law of Suspects of September 1793, which ordered the arrest of anyone suspected of treason against the Republic, “suspended” repression and cruelty rather than deepening it. “This law,” Wahnich argues, “was a manner of deploying vengeance with a maximum scope, yet without transforming it into a generalized bloodbath. The prisons filled, but the guillotine was used relatively little in terms of the number of suspects.”

The Terror was, therefore, a necessary corrective to “popular vengeance,” delimiting the sort of violence seen in September, and thus boasting a quasi-mollifying function. As Danton said in a typical moment of rhetorical thunder: “let us [the Convention] be terrible so as to save the people from being so.” Wahnich continues:

Establishing the Terror had the aim of preventing emotion from giving rise to dissolution or massacre, symbolizing what had not been done in September 1792 and thus reintroducing a regulatory function for the Assembly. For Danton, the members of the Convention had to be “the worthy regulators of national energy.”

Wahnich’s subversive reflection, then, is that far from taking lives the Terror was actually about saving them. In theory, the popular vengeance enacted against the forces of counterrevolution that took place in September 1792 was not illegitimate. But violence like that had to be grounded in juridical legitimacy, in law. Indeed, republicans of all stripes retained an abiding faithfulness towards the transformative value of the law to legitimise a public morality of insurgency, resistance, and revolution — a key feature of the French republican tradition that was to remain well into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

By June 1794 the Republic seemed to have been saved, and the revolutionary government’s use of terror vindicated. Why then did the application of violence against certain factions of the body politic not only continue but also widen and deepen at this point?

The Law of 22 Prairial Year II (10 June 1794) saw the pulleys and pulls of the guillotine spin with a shuddering intensity, as punishment for the guilty was restricted to death. This marked the zenith of the Terror, which was defined by a crucial dynamic, locking the revolutionaries into a vortex of staggering violence. On the one hand, the Jacobins wished to claim that they had been successful in yoking society to the ideals of the revolution, and wholly committed to the defence of republican liberty. On the other hand, that meant that any persons who refused to commit themselves to this society were deemed to be incapable of incorporation into the post-revolutionary regime. Beyond saving, they were fit only for death. This was the dangerous, and inescapable logic that the Jacobins followed until their fall.

After Thermidor, following the downfall of Robespierre, Saint-Just, and the other executives of Terror, there was a conscious retreat away from the attempts to legitimate sovereign violence. The nineteenth century, in particular, saw a seismic intellectual transition, whereby republican elites repudiated the fetishism of the revolutionary tradition in search for a more moderate form of republican politics. Republicans like Jules Michelet, Edgar Quinet, Léon Gambetta, and Jules Ferry, denounced the Terror and began to think anew about visions of the good life empty of the radical schemes of the Jacobins. Instead of pursuing the goal of founding a republic of virtue, republicans instead began to forge a harmonious synthesis between liberalism and democracy.

It was during this transition that a profound moment of conceptual renovation took place by which the Terror became “terrorism,” and the Jacobins — those “men of blood” — become “terrorists.” These categories, and their associated negative overtones, are still in use today to describe the intolerable nature of those who use political violence. “The terrorist” has been used to describe the criminalised and the insurrectionary: the résistants who gave their lives in fighting the Nazi occupation; the brave men and women who fought French colonialism in North Africa and South East Asia; those, like Ronnie Kasrils and Nelson Mandela, who fought the Apartheid regime in South Africa; and the Palestinian who resists Israel’s illegal and brutal occupation of Palestine.

Of course, today, for most people, “terrorist” is a category more closely associated with the Islamic extremist. No longer associated with the political revolutionary or freedom fighter, it is the icon of those tumbling towers to which it now belongs. But, Wahnich writes, “To make a moral equivalence between the Revolution’s year II and September 2001 is historical and philosophical nonsense.” 9/11 sought neither liberty nor equality, and neither did the reaction of the US and Europe.

It is at this point, in a move typical of the Gallic inclination to meld history and political theory, that Wahnich’s historical thesis becomes distinctly philosophical. Drawing on the work of German essayist and Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin, and his discussion of violence and law in his 1921 essay Critique of Violence, Wahnich offers a comparison between the Terror and the US War on Terror. Benjamin made a critical distinction between “law-making” violence, a violence that creates a state, and “law-preserving” violence, which is needed to maintain that state. A third type, “Police violence”, however, combines the two, preserving the law but also employing law-making violence as the situation demands. The French philosopher Jacques Derrida summed this up well in his Force of Law (1990):

For today the police are no longer content to enforce the law and thus to preserve it; the police invent the law, publish ordinances, and intervene whenever the legal situation is unclear to guarantee security — which is to say, these days, nearly all the time.

For Wahnich, the Terror was clearly an episode of law-making violence while the U.S. War on Terror was an unmistakable case of police violence. But this transition into a philosophical treatise at the end destabilises and dilutes the impact of Wahnich’s book. Given the original date of publication — 2003 — it was obviously not a contrived appendage but spoke to the context of the War on Terror. Today, as that neo-conservative discourse has receded somewhat, Wahnich’s discussion of 9/11, and its relation to the Terror, does not feel so immediate, and its rhetorical edge is blunted.

But Wahnich’s little book will be of interest to the discerning reader for two primary reasons. First, it takes the Terror on its own terms. Indeed, one virtue of Wahnich’s effort is that it resists attempting to unscramble the alleged causal connection between the Terror and the Enlightenment. The question of the relationship between the Enlightenment and the Revolution, and especially the Terror, are both complicated, and, arguably, increasingly stale and limited in scope. (Anyone who still considers the Terror as the lusus naturae of the Enlightenment need only turn to the pioneering scholarship of the late Robert Wokler and his work on eighteenth-century political thought). Wahnich avoids locating her discussion within a wider chronological range that would, in any case, expunge much of the potency of her argument.

Unlike her intellectual predecessors who attempted to rehabilitate the Terror as a profound moment in the history of radical republican democracy, Wahnich also avoids interring the analysis within the metanarrative of Marxism — although Marx does sneak in through the back door by way of Walter Benjamin. Marx never wrote a systematic opinion on the French Revolution but his thought, and the philosophical tradition he inspired, has historically provided a conceptual peg on which to hang judgements on the Terror. Wahnich does not pitch her treatise as an attack on the Marxist reading that the Revolution was bourgeois in nature, propelled by class conflict, and which led the way to the development of capitalism. But her analysis is refreshing because of its sensitivity towards the importance of emotions rather than the tectonic shifts in the social and economic life of eighteenth-century France.

Indeed, this is perhaps the most valuable aspect to this study, bringing into sharp relief, as it does, an essential, and often neglected, part of the story. What Wahnich stresses is that emotion is instrumental to understanding political action, casting a richer set of colours over the Terror in contrast to the slightly colder monochromes of ideological or political strategy that have been used to explain it in the past.

It is also an approach that sits well with the times. Across the Globe, we have witnessed the swelling tide of indignation towards the powerful and the political arrangements that define what the late Tony Judt called “our present discontents.” It is a time of Occupy and the Indignados whose foundation is based on that most revolutionary of emotions: outrage. Indeed, France in 2010 saw Stéphane Hessel — a celebrated veteran of the French Resistance — publish a spirited clarion call to summon the outrage that defined the days of the Resistance. It is a text that embodies the raw simplicity of the Jacobin moral code, and reassures us that Jacobinism, as a tradition of thought and action, still speaks to our times, and can offer a powerful source of inspiration to radical movements across the world.

Of course, Occupy is arguably a passing fad, and is certainly not to be compared with 1789 in terms of historic significance — unlike the Bastille, the London and New York Stock Exchanges still stand tall and proud. But what Wahnich’s book reminds us is how politics as a set of values can be inflected by emotions, which can in turn mobilise people into political action. Revolution, then, comes not only from ideas, but also from the soul, and by the harnessing of those great, and often terrible passions, like anger and hate.

Indeed, as the scolded revolutionary, Saint-Just claimed: “Honour the mind but base yourselves on the heart.”