ashthomas//blog: May 2006


Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Adam Gopnik on the French Revolution

Adam Gopnik reviews two books on the French Revolution in this week's New Yorker.

The first, The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France by David Andress, is, as the title suggests, concerned mainly with the period of radicalisation in the Revolution when the Committee for Public Safety led by Robespierre went on its blood-thirsty purge.

Gopnik summarises Andress's argument about the nature of the Revolution as such:

What drove the Terror was not a crazed intellectual desire to extend the Revolution to every corner of existence but a desperate desire to maintain its achievements in the face of opposition. Robespierre and his group were revolutionary butchers, but they were butchers surrounded by vampires. ...

Well, what was the Terror? What are we to be proportionate about? It was, in effect, the second, panicked stage of the French Revolution.

Apparently Andress sees the Terror (and the Revolution in toto, I assume), as part of a century long civil war within France that starts with the National Assemby in 1789 and ends with the establishment of the Third Republic in 1871. I don't think is a new idea (I think Furet made a similar argument), and I personally wouldn't go that far. There is nothing stopping one from continuing the "civil war" analogy through the life and death of the Third Republic, through the Vichy years into the Fourth and Fifth Republics.

But I do agree that the Terror is an identifiable period of a multi-stage revolution. I encourage my students to try to think of the French Revolution as a series of four smaller revolutions that make up a whole: the National Assembly, with its limited demands for what would essentially be a constitutional monarchy similar to the British; the Terror, a period of radicalisation where ideas were taken to their extreme; the Directory, a backlash against the extremists and the institution of more moderate policies and reforms; and finally the piecemeal coup of Napoleon Bonaparte and the creation and fall of his Napoleonic Empire.

Gopnik's review is an excellent summary of Andress's book, with many splashes of Gopnik renowned wit. I found his description of the Committee of Public Safety especially clever:

The Committee of Public Safety— one of the first great Orwellian euphemisms—was formed to bring the massacres under control, or, as it turned out, to centralize, rationalize, and mechanize them. By then, the Convention (the successor of the National Assembly) had turned from its more or less orderly and bourgeois phase into a gathering of radical clans, who met every day in a former church to argue, drink, speechify, and accuse. It was as if S.D.S. had seized power in Washington in 1968 and Mark Rudd, Abbie Hoffman, Jane Fonda, and two or three ambitious renegade generals were all suddenly trying to run the country, while their followers smoked pot and played Jefferson Airplane records, oscillating between a vague, messianic utopianism and a baleful, apocalyptic vengefulness.

The second book that Gopnik looks at is Ruth Scurr's Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution. The most insightful comment that Gopnik makes is, I think, the larger historical significance of the character of Robespierre and people like him. Robespierre serves to demonstrate...

...the ascent of the mass-murdering nerd—a man who, having read a book, resolves to kill all the people who don’t like it as much as he does. There is a case to be made that the real singularity of the Terror was the first appearance on the stage of history of this particular psychological type: not the tight-lipped inquisitor, alight with religious rage, but the small, fastidious intellectual, the man with an idea, the prototype of Lenin listening to his Beethoven as the Cheka begins its purges. In normal times, such men become college professors, or book reviewers or bloggers. It takes special historical circumstances for them to become killers: the removal of a ruling class without its replacement by a credible new one. In the confusion, their ethereal certainties look like the only solid thing to build on.

I am looking forward to reading both these books, as Gopnik as made them seem so enticing and intriguing.