Wednesday, April 19, 2006

And Pierre's robes came from Scoop

Despite an increasingly significant knowledge of late-19th-century French history, anything before the mid-1800s is still more than a bit iffy. I remember that when I learned about the French Revolution in college, I was surprised to find that I wasn't so sure I'd have been in favor. Of course, I can't remember the specifics of why I thought this--something about my generally having a moderate impulse and being suspicious of radicalism, I think? maybe?--but if I were to actually go through old notebooks still taking up precious space in my parents' apartment, I might have some idea.

Till a form of speed strong enough to motivate me to go through all my old stuff is invented and FDA-approved, I will have to refresh my memory some other way, and John Kekes' City Journal piece, "Why Robespierre Chose Terror." That was it, yes--the revolutionaries seemed a bit too much like "Islamofacists." A thought that may well have crossed my mind in Paris in 2003, but who knows. In any case, Kekes writes:

The American attitude toward the French Revolution has been generally favorable—naturally enough for a nation itself born in revolution. But as revolutions go, the French one in 1789 was among the worst. True, in the name of liberty, equality, and fraternity, it overthrew a corrupt regime. Yet what these fine ideals led to was, first, the Terror and mass murder in France, and then Napoleon and his wars, which took hundreds of thousands of lives in Europe and Russia. After this pointless slaughter came the restoration of the same corrupt regime that the Revolution overthrew. Aside from immense suffering, the upheaval achieved nothing.

The French Revolution "achieved nothing"? That's a bit strong. I mean, I guess the emancipation of the Jews was "nothing" when you consider Vichy, but the ideals of the Revolution sustained France and ultimately led to the good guys winning the Dreyfus Affair. This is not a defense of Robespierre, but it seems ridiculous to imagine what France might have been if the royalty and all-powerful Church remained. Kekes goes on to outline just how terror-filled the Reign of Terror was--point taken, but how exactly does that indict the pre-Terror Revolution? Even if it had not led to genocide, the Nazi platform was already more than a bit problematic.

3 comments:

Edmund Lee said...

Haven't read the article itself, but going by the snippet in your post, I can't help but be put in mind of the liberation of Iraq. Good intentions and overthrow of corrupt regime, check. Mass murder? Well, Iraq does seem to be descending into sectarian warfare. Hopefully we won't see a new, but different (as in Islamic and Iranian controlled), corrupt regime take over after we leave. I assume Mr. Kekes was unaware of the parallels.

Katie said...

In "The Furies" (massive comparative study of French and Russian revolutions) Arno Mayer argues that, in both cases, violence and ideological fundamentalism emerged from the escalating cycle of revolution and counter- or anti-revolution--not from some tendency inherent in the revolution from the beginning. It's dense, but worth a look.

figleaf said...

Hmm. See also Arendt's comparison of the American and French revolutions in, for instance, "On Revolution."

The Dryfus affair notwithstanding, Arendt considered the French version a catastrophe and lamented that it, rather than the American version, became the model for all subsequent revolutions. (Note: She didn't survive to see the recent Czech revolution or, with any luck, the one that may ultimately turn out well in the Ukrane.)

figleaf (who's blog is not safe for work.)