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Well Meaning but Misguided
Book Review by Ian Birchall, September 2005
Review of 'The Terror', David Andress, Little, Brown £20.00
From the learned disquisitions of François Furet to Carry On Don't Lose Your Head, the French revolutionary Terror of the 1790s is a familiar theme, usually with the attached warning, 'Try to make a revolution and this is what you get.'
So anything that helps to understand these events is valuable. David Andress's new book is of some help, but unfortunately not an awful lot. It is thorough and well researched, but alongside useful information contains many trivial anecdotes.
Early on, Andress makes an important point. The atmosphere of universal suspicion and vigilance of the Terror years was not irrational paranoia. The displaced ruling elite - above all the obnoxious Marie-Antoinette - were constantly plotting to reverse the gains of the revolution. They were quite willing to do anything to claw back their old power, and the revolutionaries had to be quite ruthless to stop them. The question the critics of the Terror never answer is, 'How else might change have come?' There is no evidence that the monarchy and its friends would have voluntarily allowed the slightest reform - without revolution they would be there today.
Andress also shows that the Terror was uneven. Some administrators (like the brutal Carrier in the Vendée, sacked well before the fall of Robespierre) were far worse than others. Again, this is scarcely surprising. After centuries of total exclusion from power, a whole population found itself trying to control its own world. Undoubtedly there was vengeance, excess and, in a few cases, pure criminality.
Yet Andress seems unable to follow the logic of his own argument. He reverts to the terminology of traditional critics of the revolution, writing of 'bloodlust' and describing France as potentially a 'huge open prison'. The immensely gifted thinker and administrator Saint-Just is repeatedly sneered at as an 'icy young ideologue'. In a quite unhistorical fashion Andress is shocked that revolutionary propaganda 'could overwhelm sentiments of common humanity', as though it were some inborn quality. He would be hard put to find much 'common humanity' in the preceding thousand years of French history.
Bizarrely, Andress seems to think that after the collapse of the USSR a class analysis of the revolution is irrelevant. Yet without a class explanation his account loses focus. He quotes an illuminating remark from revolutionary priest Jacques Roux: 'Liberty is but a vain phantom when one class of men can starve another with impunity. Equality is but a vain phantom when the rich exercise the power of life and death over their fellows through monopolies.' He fails to see that it is a key to so many of the contradictions of a bourgeois revolution, concerned simultaneously to uproot the aristocracy and to control workers' wages.
Likewise, Andress tends to get moralistic about revolutionary attitudes to women, referring to 'the general repudiation by the revolution of any solicitude for women'. While we should certainly salute those revolutionary women who stood up for the rights of their sex, it would be utterly unhistorical to imagine that most revolutionaries could have evolved in a few short years to the norms of late 20th century feminism. In fact, the main reason why the women's clubs were closed down is because for the Paris artisan class the family was a unit of production. Small craftsmen wanted their wives at home to cook and do laundry for their apprentices. Only a tiny minority of revolutionaries like Babeuf spoke up for women's equality.
In his conclusion Andress tries to compare the Terror to the current attack on civil liberties produced by the 'war on terror'. It is a well meaning thought, but utterly misguided. The French Terror, whatever its mistakes, was a movement from below responding to a wholly new historical situation. The present-day ruling classes of the US and Britain are an old and deeply corrupt privileged order, frantically clinging on to their obsolete privileges. George Bush is not Robespierre but Marie-Antoinette. The longer we leave them there, the bloodier their eventual removal will be.
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