Thursday, September 20, 2018

Divine violence

A review of "Virtue and Terror. Slavoj Zizek Presents Robespierre" 

This is a book containing lengthy excerpts from selected speeches by Maximilien Robespierre, the central leader of the radical Jacobins during the French Revolution. It's not clear on what basis the selection was made, nor are they properly introduced except in the most cursory of fashion. They are not useless, but it seems the selection could have been better – according to other sources, Robespierre “named names” in his last speech before the National Convention, but this central section (believed to have triggered his arrest) seems to have been left out of this collection. Or was it never printed? The collection comes with a lengthy, rambling and slightly bizarre introduction by Slovenian philosopher and black sheep of the intelligentsia, Slavoj Zizek. More on that shortly.

Lenin famously called Bolshevism “proletarian Jacobinism”, and it seems the always outspoken leader of the Russian Revolution had a certain point. Robespierre is in many ways a precursor to modern Communism or revolutionary state socialism. He had no concept of nationalized property, Jacobin socialism being mostly redistributive in character (through progressive taxation, confiscation, etc), but a radical questioning of private property is certainly present. “Democracy” turns out to be the rule of a revolutionary vanguard, although Robespierre never quite puts it in those words. However, it's clear that he sees the Committee of Public Safety (or perhaps his own faction) as the “pure” and “virtuous” element in government, and he almost explicitly answers the question of who watches the watchers with the claim that they watch themselves, something accomplished through “purges” (it's possible that he has moral purification in mind here).

The goal is a politically homogenous republic, unsullied by vice and ruled by reason and virtue. Here, Robespierre harks back to older models of government, the virtuous city-state being as old as Antiquity. His ideals include the Roman Republic and Sparta. Yet, I somehow suspect that the Aristotelians, Ciceronians and even Machiavellians would have been shocked by Robespierre's creative development of their classical republican ideal! Perhaps Rousseau would have liked him better?

The most infamous part of Robespierre's political thought is of course his emphasis on terror. In his speeches, the Jacobin leader explicitly states that revolutionary terror isn't based on fixed laws detailing concrete crimes. Rather, terror is inherently flexible, striking the enemy hard and fast no matter what new schemes he comes up with. Terror is virtuous, while also being an instrument of vengeance on the enemies of the Republic. And there are plenty of those! In fact, virtually everyone is an enemy. No political opposition or criticism of the radical Jacobin regime is ever sincere or legitimate, everyone being a traitor or a vacillator (which is pretty much the same thing anyway), even people in Robespierre's own party (he violently purged the Danton faction). Groups to the left of the Jacobins also had their supporters condemned to death and sent to the guillotines. Sometimes, Robespierre sounds comical, as when he attacks atheism in favor of his own deistic cult of the Supreme Being. (I think Slavoj Zizek would have been condemned to death by Robespierre. Zizek is probably too nihilistic and profligate for the tastes of a virtuous First Citizen.) It's almost as if Robespierre literally exterminated his own social base, both the one to the “right” and the one to the left! The Reign of Terror ended with Robespierre's overthrow and execution, Thermidor essentially being a movement of “all against Robespierre”, showing his splendid and perhaps virtuous isolation. I suppose you could say that Lenin was a Robespierre with a stronger base. Leninism long struck me as, in effect, a synthesis of Blanquism (latter-day Jacobinism) and Marxism. Note also Lenin's words (as reported by Victor Serge) in 1921: "This is Thermidor, but we shall not be defeated. We shall become our own Thermidor". I suppose revolutionary practice evolves, dialectically or otherwise...

In his introduction, Zizek tries to draw the lessons of Robespierre for today. Needless to say, this gadfly of pseudo-postmodern Marxism draws all the wrong ones! First, he paints the Jacobin leader as a nihilist and existentialist, perhaps in the tradition of Frantz Fanon? He does this by more or less inverting the meaning of selected passages in Robespierre's speeches. After rambling on for a dozen pages or so, the Slovenian bête noire finally realizes that Robespierre's terror was connected to a political program. Zizek then advocates world-wide terror against everyone who refuses to accept a radical eco-socialist program. He calls it “divine violence”.

Zizek *does* make a few interesting points. First, he argues that terror is only necessary if you are on the *wrong* side of the historical process. This was the original Marxist position, according to which the socialist revolution would be accompanied by *less* terror than the French ditto, since socialism is on the historical agenda and will have majority support (Marx believed that the Jacobin attempts to carry out a socialist program in 18th century France were historically premature). Zizek calls for mass terror precisely because he *doesn't* believe that a radical Green program is historically inevitable. Rather, the materialist processes driving history are all pointing in the other direction, setting the stage for a gigantic ecological disaster. A Green program can therefore only be imposed on history, as it were, from without. Hegel's dictum (which was taken over by Marxism) that the rational is the Real and the Real the rational, is no longer operative. The Rational and the Real have been torn apart, and only terror can bring them together again. Second, Zizek believes that mass terror is the instrument used to radically alter the day-to-day relations in society in one fell swoop. If everything is politicized in a situation when large portions of the population oppose political change, the only way to drive change is by terror. In the same way, radical equality can only be upheld by terroristic means. Third, Zizek is probably right in seeing the middle class or “petty bourgeoisie” as the main obstacle to his revolutionary program. Presumably, they will therefore be the main targets of the future divine violence…

Four stars, not for the opinions expressed herein, but for the, shall we call them, clarifications!

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