April 17, 2006

THESE IDEALS ALWAYS END IN TERROR (via Pepys):

Why Robespierre Chose Terror: The lessons of the first totalitarian revolution (John Kekes, Spring 2006, City Journal)

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.

Leading the betrayal of the Revolution’s initial ideals and its transformation into a murderous ideological tyranny was Maximilien Robespierre, a monster who set up a system expressly aimed at killing thousands of innocents. He knew exactly what he was doing, meant to do it, and believed he was right to do it. He is the prototype of a particularly odious kind of evildoer: the ideologue who believes that reason and morality are on the side of his butcheries. Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot are of the same mold. They are the characteristic scourges of humanity in modern times, but Robespierre has a good claim to being the first. Understanding his motives and rationale deepens our understanding of the worst horrors of the recent past and those that may lurk in the future. [...]

Robespierre made no secret of his convictions. He expressed them in several crucial speeches, of which copies, written in his own hand, remain. In his August 1792 speech, Robespierre said that France was living through one of the great events in human history. After an initial period of stumbling, the Revolution of 1789 became in August 1792 “the finest revolution that has ever honored humanity, indeed the only one with an object worthy of man: to found political societies at last on the immortal principles of equality, justice and reason.” The Revolution was the finest ever, because, for the first time in history, “the art of government” aimed not at “deceiving and corrupting man” but at “enlightening them and making them better.” The task of the Revolution was “to establish the felicity of perhaps the entire human race.” “The French people seems to have out-distanced the rest of the human race by two thousand years.”

But a serious obstacle barred the way. “Two opposing spirits . . . [are] contending for domination . . . [and] are fighting it out in this great epoch of human history, to determine for ever the destinies of the world. France is the theater of this terrible combat.” The conflicts between the friends and the enemies of the Revolution “are merely the struggle between private interests and the general interest, between cupidity and ambition on the one hand and justice and humanity on the other.” All the current political choices, consequently, were choices between good and evil, allowing Robespierre to demonize his opponents.

Note that in declaring his aim to be a society in which “the immortal principles of equality, justice and reason” would prevail, Robespierre simply dropped liberty and fraternity, substituting whatever he regarded as justice and reason.


Equality and liberty are, of course, opposite ends of regime making and what the French Revolution did was to institute the pursuit of the former as the basis of the French model. Regimes based on the French model must destroy freedom in order to secure equality. Regimes based on the Anglo-American model accept inequality as a necessary side effect of liberty.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 17, 2006 11:35 AM
Comments

I don't think "the Anglo-American model accept inequality as a necessary side effect of liberty" The Anglo-American equality is "equality of opportunities", the French/ Socialist/ Communist's is "equality of results". In the AA model, govt.'s role is to guarantee equal opportunities, people are free to accomplish whatever their abilities, their ambitions can carry them. Govt. may step in to lighten the results of failure, such as welfare payments, to those who couldn't make it. In the French "equality" model, there is always some "super humans", arrogant elites to decide what is fair, what is equal. They emphasize results, but ignore the irony that there is no equality if a ruling elite can decide what is good for the masses. By its nature, this ruling elite ia above the masses, not equal to the masses, thus no equality. Equality of results is really the elite's condescending way of saying "we are better than you, we know what is good for you; since we are better, we deserve to lord over you" In the US, conservatives want equality of opportunities, liberals want equality of results.

Posted by: ic at April 17, 2006 1:19 PM

ic:

Exactly. Human nature is such that if you give 100 people equal opportunities you won't get equal results. The French model therefore calls for using the state to "equalize".

Posted by: oj at April 17, 2006 1:25 PM

But a serious obstacle barred the way. Two opposing spirits . . . [are] contending for domination . . . [and] are fighting it out in this great epoch of human history, to determine for ever the destinies of the world. France is the theater of this terrible combat. The conflicts between the friends and the enemies of the Revolution are merely the struggle between private interests and the general interest, between cupidity and ambition on the one hand and justice and humanity on the other. All the current political choices, consequently, were choices between good and evil, allowing Robespierre to demonize his opponents.

Still done today, for the same reasons, and springing from the same spirit that is confident that THEY are on the side of the angels: only the methods have changed to evade detection.

Posted by: Ptah at April 17, 2006 1:37 PM

P:

Of course, totalitarianism always has to demonize the other. Only empires of liberty allow for giving all men equal opportunities.

Posted by: oj at April 17, 2006 1:47 PM

Never forget how peace creeps are the water-carriers of every totalitarian nightmare. The Terror was not brought down in the end by speeches and majority votes, but by blood and iron.

Posted by: Lou Gots at April 17, 2006 2:21 PM

P:

Of course, totalitarianism always has to demonize the other. Only empires of liberty allow for giving all men equal opportunities.

Posted by: oj at April 17, 2006 01:47 PM

Heh, try telling the demonizers WHILE they're busy demonizing their opponents: Being on the side of the angels, they'll just add you to their list and feel perfectly righteous while doing it.

Posted by: Ptah at April 17, 2006 2:35 PM

Pish-posh. It's always apparent who is basing their politics on hatred of others.

Posted by: oj at April 17, 2006 2:43 PM

Pish-posh. It's always apparent who is basing their politics on hatred of others.

Posted by: oj at April 17, 2006 02:43 PM

Actually, there are three groups involved:

D) the Demonizers
V) the Demonized victims.
O) third party Observers.

Groups V and O are who you are referring to, who can see what's going on. I was referring to group D. If you oppose demonization on principle, no matter who does it or how they do it, you have to give up sometimes on group D and work on groups V and O.

Posted by: Ptah at April 17, 2006 3:20 PM

Demonization isn't wrong in principle though--racism, communism, nazism, etc. are indeed demonic. It's when folks try demonizing the powerless simply because they are "other" that the alarms go off.

Posted by: oj at April 17, 2006 3:26 PM

oj-

In other words, demonic ideologies deserve to be demonized except when the 'powerless' attach themselves to those ideologies? The so-called 'powerless' have had a tendency for such attachment throughout history. Communism, Nazism explicitly rejected the divine for the demonic and more than a few of the 'powerless' went along for the ride. Power or the lack thereof doesn't appear to have much to do with it. The quality of the ideas is all that matters.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at April 18, 2006 11:27 AM

Tom:

No, demonic ideologies deserve to be demonized. They generally prey on the powerless for obvious reasons and always on religious groups. Anti-immigrationists get the two--fer in opposing Latino Christian immigration, which is why it unites secular Left and far Right.

Posted by: oj at April 18, 2006 6:20 PM
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