December 2, 2007


Remembering the Reign of Terror: Robespierre is today depicted as a sexless fanatic who invented modern terrorism. His own words reveal he was a fearless critic of tradition and incorruptibly committed to liberty: a million miles from today’s webcam jihadists. (Dolan Cummings, Spiked Review of Books)

This collection of Robespierre’s speeches has been published at a time when terrorism is a political obsession. But terrorism is widely discussed as a sort of alien plague on global society rather than something arising from the prevailing political culture itself, while ‘legitimate’ political violence is veiled in layers of obfuscation. It is unnerving to read what amounts to a straightforward defence of terror as a means to political ends. More than that, Robespierre shows none of the empty adolescent bravado of today’s webcam jihadis, even though many describe him as the ‘father of modern terrorism’ as if there is a straight line from him to Osama bin Laden. Instead, he makes a serious intellectual case.

And whereas Osama bin Laden gleefully parrots his Western enemies’ indulgent self-criticism on everything from moral decline to the environment, Robespierre is ruthlessly and earnestly focused on his own idea of virtue: liberty, equality and fraternity, without compromise. The political violence of the Revolution was not symbolic, but meant seriously as a means of crushing the enemies of the people, whether these were aristocrats fighting to restore the ancien regime or opponents within the people’s own ranks. ‘The Terror’ itself was the period between September 1793 and July 1794, when political tensions between revolutionary factions led to thousands of executions before the Robespierrists themselves were crushed and the revolutionary moment came to an end.

The book is attractively produced, with a chronology, glossary and recommended further reading, as well as an introduction by the hip philosopher Slavoj Žižek. But there is something surreal about its publication at a time when serious alternatives, let alone revolution, are off the political agenda. This is especially so because Žižek tends to write as if everyone shares his own radical politics, casually invoking Lenin or Mao to support a point, for example. That this seems innocuous rather than jarring – or even exhilarating – is testament to the gulf that exists today between the world of ideas and intellectuals and our resolutely conservative political reality.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 2, 2007 5:35 PM
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