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The Furies:
Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions
Arno J. Mayer

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COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Published by Princeton University Press and copyrighted, © 2000, by Princeton University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher, except for reading and browsing via the World Wide Web. Users are not permitted to mount this file on any network servers. Follow links for Class Use and other Permissions. For more information, send e-mail to permissions@press.princeton.edu

Chapter 1

REVOLUTION

Revolution is a word-concept of multiple meanings. It evokes dialectically linked oppositions: light and darkness; rupture and continuity; disorder and order; liberation and oppression; salvation and damnation; hope and disillusion. Precisely because it is Janus-faced, revolution is intrinsically tempestuous and savage. The Furies of revolution are fueled above all by the resistance of the forces and ideas opposed to it. This confrontation turns singularly fierce once it becomes clear that revolution entails and promises—or threatens—a thoroughly new beginning or foundation of polity and society. Hannah Arendt rightly insists that "revolutions are the only political events which confront us directly and inevitably with the problem of beginning." Comprehensive and forced, as well as rapid, such an uncommon fresh start involves not only the radical mutation of the established governing and ruling elites but also the simultaneous desacralization of the old order and the consecration of the new in the urgent quest for legitimacy.

    Revolution provokes enormous resistance in part because it entails far-reaching changes not only in politics but also in society and culture, including church and religion. In 1789 in France and in 1917 in Russia state and church were firmly joined, and there was no reforming the one without reforming the other, and without redefining their relationship, precipitating a struggle occasioning an escalation from liberal to illiberal secularism. Indeed, society being largely "built and cemented on a foundation of religion ... it is impossible to loosen the cement and shake the foundation without endangering the superstructure." Since the ideologically fired presumption to recast political and civil society, including its sacred core, transcends national borders, it also arouses strong resistance abroad. By reason of its ideology, which disturbs the international system, revolution is an intrinsically world-historical phenomenon. It becomes a potent siren for sympathizers and converts far and wide; at the same time, it looms as a ubiquitous specter for foreign powers, which then provide the lifeblood for resistance in the world arena and in the epicenter of the revolutionary eruption as well.


* * *


Shortly after the first anniversary of the French Revolution, before the Great Terror, Count de Mirabeau, without losing faith, avowed that he "never believed in a great revolution without bloodshed" and that he considered civil war "a necessary evil." Over a century later, before 1914, Jean Jaurès, while reflecting critically on the French Revolution and forewarning of an Armageddon pregnant with another revolution, still considered revolution a necessary and fruitful, even if barbarous "means of progress." But after 1945, following Europe's harrowing Second Thirty Years War, marked by extreme revolution and counterrevolution, Hannah Arendt concluded, as noted, that "no matter how outrageous the circumstances of the powers that be ... freedom had been better served in countries where no revolution had ever broken out."

    Except in some precincts of the Third World, where political freedoms cannot take first or absolute priority, the principle of revolution is either utterly disvalued or so redefined as to fit revolutions that are found acceptable, even extolled, this side of paradise: the "revolutions without revolution" of 1789 to 1792 in France and of February—March 1917 in Russia, or the recent "velvet" revolutions in eastern and east-central Europe. In this day and age the only genuine and virtuous revolution is said to be one in which at best limited violence, well short of terror, is used to force the establishment of a Rechtsstaat to guarantee individual rights, political freedoms, private property, and free-market capitalism. At the same time, by reason of its promiscuous use, the word revolution is being trivialized. Every single aspect of contemporary society, economy, and culture is said to be in perpetual revolution: business, finance, telecommunications, life sciences, medicine, health services, work, and leisure. What were once conceived as gradual mutations have been reconceived as revolutions, most of them represented in essentially positive terms, and this despite the reigning disbelief in the idea of progress. Of course, the political fate of the word revolution has been extraordinary. In France, Marc Bloch noted, "whereas the ultras of 1815 shuddered at the very word revolution, those of 1940 used it to dissemble their coup d'etat." Since then, as if in extension of Vichy's practice, it has become increasingly fashionable to characterize the National Socialist takeover and regime in Germany a revolution rather than a counterrevolution.

    Meanwhile the inherently polarizing duality of the blinding promise and panic fear of revolution continues to perplex historians and social theorists as much as it confounded contemporaries of the French and Russian revolutions. Precisely because of the built-in tension between its light and dark sides, revolution continues to be one of the most vexed historical and political questions. Indeed, it is a topic about which it is "neither possible nor proper to be neutral ... [and] value-free." There are good reasons to distrust scholars and public intellectuals who allege that "ideology is the thinking of my adversary" while claiming the high ground of objectivity for themselves even as they brace it with pluralistic liberalism or conservatism which "excludes the revolutionary hypothesis." Ultimately the study of revolution bears out Benedetto Croce's aphorism that "all genuine history is contemporary history."


* * *


The word-concept of revolution has a history, its changing meanings being defined in arguments advanced in specific contexts and expressed in contemporaneous language and rhetoric. Intellectuals and scholars contribute to this periodic redefinition, probing current understandings which, by virtue of the apparent contradictions, they consider to be inadequately conceived and theorized. In any case, the components, structures, dynamics, and contours of the word-concept of revolution are periodically revised in the light of changing circumstances, and so are its correlations with other concepts, which are equally subject to revision. But at all times revolution "has many meanings" in that "whatever the context, the word seems to overflow the precise and definite meaning assigned to it." Whoever uses the word-concept of revolution freights it with his or her particular idea of its nature and dynamics. This is as true of splitters and nominalists as it is of lumpers and holists. Whereas the former presumably foreswear totalizing and dialectical reason, the latter implicitly embrace it. But whatever their methodological premises, students of revolution tend to seek unifying explanations in part to master their own unease in face of a perplexing and disquieting problem which tests the limits of understanding and justification.

    Prior to the seventeenth century, with kings and princes ruling by divine right, willful rebellions were unthinkable for being profane and sinful. It was a time when "revolution went by the name of civil war," which was considered a "subspecies of war" fueled by feudal, seignorial, or confessional conflicts. Montesquieu noted that there were "plenty of civil wars without revolutions"; and not unlike Voltaire after him, he envisaged the overturn of despotic government without civil war. Impressed by the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which marked the establishment of a constitutional monarchy without bloodshed and terror, Voltaire and his fellow dissidents began to conceive of revolution as a "counter-concept" opposite civil war, which they considered a "legacy of the fanatical religious parties which would be left behind by the advance of civilization." Ultimately the intention and outcome of the revolution in England was a restoration of monarchic power. This was in keeping with the cyclical connotations of the term revolution which politics appropriated from astronomy. Besides, in England the "final moment of 1688 was called revolution," not the Puritan rebellion and the civil wars of mid-century. This was in contrast to France a century later, where it was "precisely the first moment" that went by that name.

    The revolution in America, like that in England, was actually a restoration. The secessionists of the Thirteen Colonies fought a war of liberation against the British government for having violated England's own political principles which the rebels claimed for themselves. No wonder the colonists represented this founding act as their War of Independence, and it was not until a decade after 1776, and especially after 1789, that it began to go by the name of American Revolution. Like the Glorious Revolution, it was driven by tradition. The rebels never intended to bring about major changes in the colonies' moral, social, or economic values or institutions. The political and civil freedoms which were reclaimed were not extended to Blacks and Native Americans, who easily accounted for one-fifth of a total population of 2.5 million. To be sure, numerous Loyalists fought on the side of the British against the insurgents, but there was nothing counterrevolutionary about this resistance, whose core values were not at war with those of their adversaries. Nor was there a civil war following the establishment of the new and independent American government, at any rate not until 1861. Although within a generation or two there were considerable changes in the political practices, social relationships, and cultural tastes of the ex-colonial society, none of them had been imagined or projected by the secessionists and they evolved gradually, without brutal ruptures with the past.

    By contrast, the French and Russian revolutions were anything but "cyclical" and restorative. Both were made by self-conscious revolutionaries open or sworn to new ideas. Admittedly, in 1788 ready-made ideological canons or blueprints were nonexistent in France: at best "a dozen writers professed to be true republicans and revolutionaries, and they were very obscure." The advocates of disestablishment of the Gallican Church were equally scarce. The ideas, agents, and agencies of the lumières (Enlightenment) had, however, fostered an atmosphere favorable to questioning, but not defying, the reign of privilege, feudalism, and absolutism. When the Estates-General met in the spring of 1789, enlightened and progressive factions of the ruling and governing classes looked for constitutional, fiscal, and legal reforms respectful of the person and office of Louis XVI, as well as of the spirit of the monarchist regime. In the summer and fall of that same year, however, when the National Assembly abolished seignorial rights and feudal privileges and adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, this not only represented a drastic acceleration of the revolutionary process, but was also associated with a decisive change in the very meaning of the word-concept revolution. These spectacular measures were voted under the pressure of events, and carried the imprint of the critical ideas and principles of the unstructured dissidence of the eighteenth century. But this was also the moment of the sudden emergence of political actors who represented themselves to be revolutionaries as they plunged into the emergent debates and struggles over the direction and defense of what they here and now proclaimed to be the Great Revolution. It was these self-proclaimed and self-conscious revolutionaries who may be said to have "invented the Enlightenment," in that they harnessed the writings of the philosophes to ground their legitimacy and philosophic genealogy as well as to justify their actions.

    In Edgar Quinet's insightful reading, once the champions of reformist revolt turned into architects of revolutionary change, "they needed a foundation that had nothing in common with tradition." This invention of a new foundation was not only the "grandeur ... [but also] the most vulnerable side of the French Revolution," all the more so since this ideological warrant "had to be defined in opposition to [the reigning Catholic] religion." Quinet held that "everything was new" in this praxis: "for the first time in history philosophy had to serve as institution, belief system, and archive at the same time that it had to descend into the streets." This reading is consonant with Robespierre's assertion that neither the "books of political writers who did not foresee this Revolution nor the laws of tyrants expert in the abuse of power" provided guidance for a "theory of revolutionary government that was as new as the revolution which spawned it."


* * *


The level of revolutionary self-consciousness was, of course, considerably greater a century later. By then discussions about the glories, missteps, and betrayals of the French Revolution, as well as controversies about its lessons, were central to the political debates, theoretical and tactical, of Russian liberals and socialists. The upheaval of 1905 seemed to validate this concern by confirming, pace the Slavophiles, that Russia's development would be similar to central and western Europe's. The reformists were split between constitutional monarchists who urged timely reforms from above as the best antidote to revolution, and republicans, both liberal and socialist, who advocated a bourgeois revolution which would short-circuit a Jacobin onset. The Bolsheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries also embraced this Europeanist vision, except that they stressed two peculiarities of contemporary Russia's potentially explosive condition: the former looked to the new if still sparse industrial proletariat to become the chief political carrier and beneficiary of revolution; the latter meant to rally and serve the timeless and weighty peasantry.

    No wonder the mimetic element, with the French Revolution as its main referent, was present from the very creation of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Both the old and new elites, not the subaltern underclass of workers and peasants, superimposed the fever chart of the Russian Revolution on what they assumed to have been the fever chart of the French Revolution with a view to determining the degree to which the temperature curves of the two revolutions diverged from each other. The question was not whether the two revolutions were similar, but the extent to which they were. Being more self-conscious about their role in the unfolding drama than their predecessors of 1788-89 had been, the formative revolutionary elite acted with "less naiveté and originality." While the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks saw themselves and each other as Girondins and Jacobins, the Octobrists and Constitutional-Democrats (Kadets) had every appearance of being the monarchiens or feuillants—the moderates—of their day. All except the far left and the far right worked and hoped to bring the revolution to a close without either yielding to the rule of terror or falling back into the ancien regime. In fact, before being caught up in the revolutionary tempest, the actors of all camps, including the counterrevolutionaries, thought they "knew what a revolution was all about and the course it was likely to take."

    The Russian Revolution "was the first to rely intellectually on a predecessor and ... to recognize a connection between revolutions." Far from being mere mimesis, this self-awareness also involved setting the Russian Revolution off from its elder, the Grande Révolution, by proclaiming itself to be "the last, the true, and the genuine" revolution destined to be both permanent and global. Certainly the Bolsheviks intended 1917 to be the "antithesis" of 1789, the revolution of the fourth estate—the proletariat—superseding that of the third—the bourgeoisie. They proposed to close the gap between the abstract rights and freedoms of 1789 and the continuing wretchedness of the human condition by marrying political with social renewal.

    In Russia first in 1905 and then in 1917 revolution involved "a conscious modeling" after both "the men and ... the experience" of the French Revolution. Indeed, for the Bolsheviks this mimesis may have been as important an orienting factor as ideology. To the extent that Lenin and Trotsky "set out to accomplish and direct a revolution" according to an ideological and strategic blueprint, it was predeliberated in critical awareness of the French Revolution and its aftershocks, notably the European upheavals of 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1871. Many of the Bolsheviks' great prescripts of the first hours were dictated less by ideology than by circumstances they read in the light of 1789-94. They did, of course, invoke, expound, and eventually exalt the works of Marx and Engels, much as the Jacobins had extolled those of Voltaire and Rousseau. But the terrors of the Russian Revolution no more rose out of the ideas of the "fathers" of Socialism than those of the French Revolution had risen out of ideas of the "fathers" of the Enlightenment. Besides, Marx and Engels were no more champions of violence and terror than the philosophes.

    Perhaps the distinctiveness of revolution, in its post-1789 sense, can be made to stand out clearer by contrasting it with the related phenomenon of revolt. Visceral and instantaneous, revolt is inhospitable to the ways of theory and ideology. Its agents mean to preserve or reclaim established rights and institutions rather than radically recast or overturn them. Although both revolution and revolt are turned against established elites and authorities, the former is driven by ideology and hope, whereas the latter is moved by tradition and despair or disillusionment. Rebels, unlike revolutionaries, have a tendency to set upon local and tangible enemies who are readily vilified and turned into scapegoats. Ultimately a revolt has a limited horizon, is ill-organized, and is short-lived, its leaders being unwilling or unable to merge or coordinate their objectives and operations with those of other insurgencies beyond their locality or region. The Vendée and the Federalist rebellion during the French Revolution have many of the characteristics and deficits of revolts against constituted authority, and so do the jacqueries of Makhno in Ukraine and Antonov in Tambov during the Russian Revolution. Conceiving their project as national in scope and transnational in implication, revolutionaries, for their part, resolve to institutionalize their own revolt at the expense of crushing all others in their drive to establish or impose their monopoly of centralized state power.


* * *


The word-concept of revolution, on the other hand, has since 1789 denoted a set of characteristics peculiar to a particular historical moment and process. One of the chief defining circumstances is the breakdown of the state's undivided and centralizing sovereignty into several centers of competing power or impotence, with each center resorting to violence to reestablish a monopoly on the use of force—legitimate violence—for itself, either nationally or regionally. This collapse and fragmentation of political authority, which breeds both domestic and foreign violence, is accompanied by the breakdown of the judicial system, entailing the wreck of the sluice gates holding back the return of repressed vengeance. A reign of upward spiraling chaos and violence provides the enabling context for a radically new beginning not only in political regime but also in society, law, church, and culture. This founding moment is one of intense and sudden ruptures which provide impassioned but confounded revolutionary leaders with the opportunity to articulate an unsteady synthesis of millenarian, eschatological, and Manichaean precepts. They rush to do so unmindful of what Edmund Burke decried as "the enormous evils of ... dreadful innovation" and Hannah Arendt considered "the strange pathos of novelty," but also in the heat of circumstances which call for pressing decisions for which there are no rational criteria. The members of this nascent and untried governing and ruling class "speak a new language" with fresh words, or old words which assume new meanings, along with a new logic, style, and syntax. This emergent language expresses new ideas and principles which in time crystallize into a Weltanschauung whose idioms have transnational reverberations, both friendly and hostile.

    There may well be no more telling defining characteristic of revolution than its international temper. Compared to revolts, which are endemic and territorial, revolutions are epidemic and cosmic. Indeed, "any genuine revolution is a world revolution," its principles being "universal." Although the two great revolutions started as Franco-French and Russo-Russian affairs, they never spoke only or primarily for one people or country. Characteristically, when championing the text of the Declaration of the Rights of Man which the Constituent Assembly adopted in August 1789, Jérôme Pétion, a radical, commended it for speaking "for man in general," and Adrien J.-F. Duport, a moderate, for seeking to promote "the great truths of all times and countries." Burke instantly recognized and denounced "the Declaration of a new species of Government on new principle ... [as] a real crisis in the politicks [not of France but] in all countries," in character with an "epidemic." For his part Hegel hailed the French Revolution as a "world-historical" event precisely because of its engagement on behalf of man, regardless of religion or nation. Needless to say, in their time Marx and Engels fully shared this view.

    The Russian Revolution had this same universalizing immanence and reason. Of course, given the circumstances of their rise to power, the Bolsheviks were acutely conscious of the crucial importance of the course of international politics for their fortunes. This consciousness was evident in the Decree on Peace of November 8, 1917, which, along with the Decree on Land, was their first official act. There followed the Declaration of the Rights of the Toiling and Exploited People of January 8, 1918, adopted by the Third Congress of Soviets. A clear echo of the great charter of 1789, it was certain to be heard around the world. Compared to the time of the French Revolution, foreign supporters and sympathizers were potentially more numerous, plebeian, and diverse. And particularly the workers and intellectuals among them were better and more easily organized. With an eye to the restless proletariat and disillusioned intelligentsia of the First World, the Bolsheviks convened the founding congress of the Third International (Comintern) in Moscow in March 1919. As for the Congress of the Peoples of the East, which met in Baku in September 1920, it signaled that the Russian Revolution, from its Eurasian base, looked to set astir the semi-colonial and colonial world as well. In point of fact, even the founding declaration of January 8, 1918 included a condemnation of bourgeois civilization for "barbarically enslaving many millions of working people in Asia and in the colonies generally."

    Of course, as at home, so in the world at large, the two revolutions were at once a dream and a specter, a calling and an illusion. While they rallied converts and sympathizers in some quarters, they made sworn enemies and skeptics in others. There is no studying and understanding the former apart from the latter, since they were each other's Nemesis. No less striking, and paradoxically, in no time the inherent universalism of the French and Russian revolutions, confronted with a hostile outside world, became coupled with nationalism, creating an intense and inevitable contradiction between their ecumenicalism and particularism: in France the sacralization of la nation; in Russia the embrace of "Socialism in One Country."


* * *


The French and Russian revolutions grew into revolutions of world-historical importance to a large extent because they had their origin and infancy in the lands of great powers. Except as a satellite, a small country has difficulty spawning or sustaining a viable revolution, since one or another great power is likely to intervene to crush it. Upon taking root in a major country, a revolution unsettles the international system in two ways: the initial chaos and weakness of the host country invite other states to advance their rival interests at its expense, thereby disturbing the balance of power and increasing the risk of war; the fear of contagion provokes the powers into joining forces to resolutely contain or fight the revolutionary power, in the process permeating world politics with ideology and unsteadying international order by banishing a major player from it. The failure of early intervention—direct and indirect, military and diplomatic, economic and cultural—to smother the revolution is due as much to the conflicting interests and lack of diplomatic cohesion among the intervening states as it is to the military and spatial sinews of the country in which the revolution occurs.

    In any case, there is no denying the "close interrelatedness ... [and] mutual dependence" of revolution and foreign war, which have violence as their "common denominator." Indeed, revolution and war are inconceivable "outside the domain of violence," which sets them off "from all other political phenomena." Just as revolution breeds war, so war, particularly defeat in war, begets revolution. And ultimately foreign war does more than civil war to revolutionize revolution.

    The chronology of the interplay of revolution and war was strikingly different in the French and Russian revolutions, even if war decisively radicalized both: in 1789, "first revolution and then war"; in 1917, "first war and then revolution." Born in peacetime, the French Revolution had three years to take form without foreign war, and in the main without civil war as well. It was only as of 1792 that it became "more and more a European event, ... [its] signpost pointing outward from Paris to the world." Three years of peace were followed by twenty-three years of European war in which the Great Revolution and the Grande Nation were inseparable. To the contrary, the Russian Revolution was born and had its infancy in war so that Russia "steered from three years of war with the world into an internal revolution" whose signpost pointed increasingly inward. Moreover, some of the essential characteristics of the Russian Revolution took shape in four years of inseparable foreign and civil conflict. Thereafter, starting with the Treaty of Riga of October 1920 and until 1939, the revolution was all but contained within Russia's amputated borders.

    There were, then, two radically different paths. Following a few years of peace, for nearly a quarter century France engaged in successful foreign war which significantly influenced the course of the revolution at home, including the course of its terror. By contrast, the Russian Revolution barely survived the early years of what was a devastating civil and foreign war aggravated and prolonged by outside intervention. This trial was followed by two decades of unrelenting quarantine which deeply affected the life of the Soviet regime and project. From 1792 to 1815 and 1920 to 1939, domestic and foreign affairs were intensely intertwined. Sometimes the domestic repercussions of international politics outweighed the impact of internal on external developments, though at other times the roles were reversed. Overall there is, however, no denying or disputing that the interrelationship of foreign war and revolution was of vital importance, particularly as it bore on the flux and reflux of civil violence.


* * *


The bayonets of revolution and counterrevolution need ideology as much as ideology needs them. Ideology is the lifeblood of revolution, and like revolution it is a highly charged word-concept. In politics as well as in intellection, to be ideological is to be biased and unobjective. Ideologies are said to dissemble and misrepresent, if not falsify reality. Just as one person's religion is another's obscurantism or fanaticism, so one individual's ideology is another's partisanship or prevarication.

    Ideology is a collectively held worldview consisting of a body of ideas, tenets, and principles expressed not only through written or spoken words but also with symbols, gestures, attitudes, and rituals. It advocates a project of change—or opposition to change—at the same time that it explains, justifies, and legitimates the actions of those seeking to further and implement it. Being action-oriented, ideology, to be effective, is "expressed in normative maxims, slogans, and rhetorical formulas" designed to persuade, reassure, and inspire partisans and supporters. Accordingly ideology is the "mutation of a system of thought into a belief system" whose tenets become "impermeable and inaccessible to argument." These tenets are intended to be "believed ... [rather than] explored, tested, and held under the searchlight of consciousness," with the result that their proponents move in a closed system "impregnated with orthodoxy ... [and] intolerance," disposing them to face their adversaries and critics in a "friend-enemy" logic and spirit.

    Although the belief system's major articles of faith are closely inter-linked, their position within the system as well as their relation to each other change with changing circumstances. Ideology is inherently flexible and adaptable, not rigid and immutable. Its exponents and executors constantly attune principle and reality, theory and practice. Ideology "evolves and plays different roles in different phases of revolution." Rather than fix iron parameters for action, it "sets limits on possible policy choices," particularly in moments of great peril and bewilderment.

    In revolutionary moments ideology also, or above all, serves a founding function. It is "tied to the need of a [new] social group to project an image of itself, to present itself in the theoretical sense, as if going and acting on stage." No less important, in the quest for legitimacy ideology celebrates the tempest and spirit, as well as heroes, of the founding act with a view to project its "shockwaves" well beyond the generation of the "founding fathers."


* * *

As previously noted, the breakdown of sovereignty is the essential precondition for the escalation of revolt into revolution. This collapse of legitimate authority goes hand in hand with the dislocation of the legal and social order as well as of cultural and intellectual life. Meanwhile, the intractable political dislocation is fueled by economic and financial difficulties which, in turn, are aggravated by the general disorder. But above all, the disintegration of the central state results in the creation of two or more fragile and competing centers of sovereignty with ample space for local and regional disorder and self-affirmation, as well as for personal and communitarian self-expression and liberation.

    Indeed chaos is the hallmark of the indeterminate revolutionary situation. This chaos is not only a spring of hope and resolve. It is also a source of fear and uncertainty. Michelet noted that in revolutionary France there was widespread fear of "universal disorganization," with "growing paralysis of the cities [and] ... agitation in the countryside." In the face of this social decomposition, which probably was greatest in rural France, "the body politic was [as if] dead." The center, in Paris, was "unable and unwilling to act": the armies went without arms and provisions and the laws of the Assembly "were not dispatched to the provinces," leaving not a few of them "to their own devices."

    Even if Michelet overstated the fear and the reality of France's disintegration and lawlessness by 1792, it must have been considerable, all the more so since it coincided with the start of war, the frontier defeats, the declaration of a national emergency, the Brunswick Manifesto, the drive against refractory priests, the reversal of the throne, and the prison massacres. Ironically, the nascent revolutionary regime was often seen as a "reign of anarchy," with the Assembly helpless by virtue of having no administrative organs, law courts, and enforcement agencies of its own. The vacuum of effective power all but invited an "access of fury" by Jacobins "rallying the [political] clubs and appealing to violence." Their purpose was to save France by reuniting unruly elements and stray provinces in a new political and social edifice, with a "vigorous negation of the old order as its cornerstone."

    What was true of France was also true of Russia. In fact, the chaos in France in 1792 was child's play compared with Russia's in 1917, let alone in 1918 to 1921. At the onset of the revolution in the late tsarist empire, some of the major cities as well as much of the countryside were in upheaval, and in no time there were serious food shortages, the economy was spent, and rail transport was paralyzed. This social and economic disorder was both cause and effect of the disintegration of the army, the fall of the monarchy, the collapse of political and legal authority, and the breakup of the empire, compounded by the strains of foreign and civil war. Russia's time of troubles at once paved the Bolsheviks' way to power and weighed them down with an impossible burden. With them as with the Jacobins, to control the situation, in the words of Michelet, "fury took the place of force, which was wanting."


* * *


The virtual breakdown of authority in an environment of swelling social disorder aggravated by foreign and civil war demands resolute action in which innovation is dictated as much by critical circumstances as by the rage to remake the world. In the conservative perspective, the chaos of revolution is no excuse or license for radical change. Burke, indeed, was blind to this contingency when he condemned "the enormous evils of this dreadful innovation" due to "[t]he revolution harpies of France, sprung from night and hell, or from that chaotick anarchy, which generates unequivocally `all monstrous, all prodigious things,' cuckoo-like, adulterously lay their eggs, and brood over, and hatch them in the nest of every neighboring State." Although these "obscene harpies" affected "divine attributes," they were "foul and ravenous birds of prey ... [who] leave nothing unrent, unrifled, unravaged, or unpolluted with the slime of their filthy offal." In retrospect, and soberly, Tocqueville saw France's predicament in the first flush of revolution as "the tumultuous spasms of a disjointed society ... [defying] the old regime [that was] nearly uprooted and holding out at only a few points and the new one [that was] not yet established."

    Indeed, a chief defining characteristic of the revolutionary moment may well be this "hiatus between the no-longer and the not-yet" in which "the relationship between foundation and innovation" is inseparable from the "unpredictability of emergences." Merleau-Ponty considered this moment one in which "history is suspended and institutions verging on extinction demand that men make fundamental decisions which are fraught with enormous risk by virtue of their final outcome being contingent on a largely unforeseeable conjuncture," latent with "tragedy." Hannah Arendt was equally alive to the hazards of innovation in historical moments located somewhere between an extinct past and an unfathomable future. Rather than embrace Burke's "hatred to innovation" she discerned a certain "pathos of novelty," or a mixture of wonderment and apprehension, that takes hold of historical actors in the face of painful and destructive decisions bearing on a perilous tomorrow. Indeed, for Arendt "the element of novelty" is as "intimately associated" with revolution as the elements of "[new] beginning and violence." In the eye of the revolutionary storm, bewildered and inexperienced politicians improvise and innovate without the benefit of well-grounded theoretical and programmatic precepts, as they opt for a fuite en avant, a necessary but perilous rush forward, meant to restore a single sovereignty.

    This headlong "march into the unknown," intended to reconstitute state authority as an essential step to a new beginning, is bound to be violent, terrifying, and savage, there being no prior laws, national or international, to put it under constraint. A revolution has a protracted life. It entails rebellions, mutinies, and protests whose control or suppression involves the new regime's use of repressive violence which, with time, becomes legitimate force. The revolutionary leaders perceive and denounce these resistances as counter-revolts belonging to the counterrevolution, not unlike the military resistance of the outside world. The regime represents its own violence on the one hand, and that of counterrevolution on the other, in terms of the belief system which explains and justifies the revolutionary project as a whole. Before long the violence of the beginning is sacralized and assigned a central place in the founding myth.


* * *


According to Tocqueville, compared to the goals of the upheavals of the seventeenth century, the "real object of the [French] Revolution was less a new form of government than a new form of society; less the achievement of political rights than the destruction of privileges." The Revolution was uniquely comprehensive, in that it at one and the same time "assailed political and social beliefs, aspired to reform the individual and the State, tried to change old customs, established opinions, and fixed habits on every subject simultaneously." Jacob Burckhardt considered this broad-gauged revolution the expression and carrier of a radical crisis whose "fanaticisms" were in the nature of a "fever" and which served to "sweep away a mass of social and cultural forms that had long since lost all vitality" but would have been impossible to "remove from the world" in times of normalcy. Ultimately Burckhardt, like Tocqueville, prized above all historical continuity and preservation. Even so, he, contemporaneously with Tocqueville, developed an ever more burning interest in the dynamics and lessons of revolutionary moments, with their "ruptures and reactions," which were at once terrifying and salutary.

    Although revolution accelerates history, it is not a sprint but a marathon—it "lasts a long time." It takes at least one generation for its radical transformations to take root, entailing a "melt-down bringing popular opinions, impulses, and habits to a boil" along with the release of the "underworld of madness and hatred" which intensify the "barbarization, mutilation, and goring" of society. This de-civilization is the downside of the crisis which secretes decisive changes in the governing and ruling class; in the economic, social, and legal order; in the code of speech and dress; in the style of architecture and monuments; in the ways of thinking and argumentation. In some spheres changes take longer than in others, but in none do they happen overnight.

    Still, precisely because of its Janus-faced and far-reaching nature, as well as its relatively long life, a revolutionary crisis can be considered an historical epoch with a precise beginning but an ill-defined and problematic end. Indeed, compared to a historical period, which has an uncertain opening as well as closing, an epoch starts with "a beginning event which gives rise to the new (das Neue) by reason of a `revolution' of things meant to be irreversible." There is no analogous terminal event to set off the end of the revolutionary epoch from the start of the post-revolutionary era.

    With a spectacular turning point as its threshold, an epoch has a physiognomy, a form and structure, a chronology, a tempo, and a Zeitgeist. But the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Of course, Burke instantly had the intuition that 1789 marked a radical discontinuity and challenge in the history of Christian Europe. After a while Joseph de Maistre, having read Burke, conceded his own "error" of initially having considered the revolution an "event" when, in fact, it was an "epoch." Confident that the "chaos," which was providential, would end in unpredictable ways, Maistre nevertheless "expressed compassion for generations condemned to experience ... the adversities of epochs of world history." For him the revolution was not simply a disorder but a new order with an ideological consistency: by defying Christianity in France the enemy, in the form of "the goddess of Reason," was "attacking the citadel." It was this moral or religious struggle which led Maistre to "consider the French Revolution a great epoch whose untold consequences will be felt well beyond the time and land in which it exploded."

    Hegel celebrated what Maistre deplored and dreaded. For Hegel the French Revolution was an "agitated time of hoping and fearing" for the advance of the idea of the freedom to be human. The year 1789 marked the start of a "new epoch" which he hailed for being a "rosy ... [and] glorious mental dawn." From his perspective "in its substantial import ... the revolution is World-Historical," and as such a "turning point" into an "epoch of the world's history" whose political resolution remained uncertain.

    Actually, Lenin developed a perceptive idea of epoch as he reflected about the complexity and pace of the transformation of Russia. In 1923, in one of his last writings, he held that it would take at least "an entire historical epoch ... of one or two decades" to win over the peasantry for the modernization of agriculture under the New Economic Policy. Overall he expected the near future to "be a special historical epoch, and without this epoch, without universal literacy, without a sufficient degree of explaining, of teaching the population how to use books, and without a material basis for all this, without a certain guarantee, if only, let us say, against crop failure, against famine, and so on—without that we shall not attain our goal."

    A quarter of a century later Merleau-Ponty, as if following in Maistre's footsteps, distinguished between normal and epic historical moments. Having experienced the chaos, violence, and intellectual bewilderment of the Second World War through the defeat and occupation of France, and sympathetic to the flawed promise of the Russian Revolution, he undertook to rethink the explosive contradictions of his time. Merleau-Ponty propounded that when living in what Charles Péguy called "a historical period, when political man can afford to confine himself to administering the established regime and law, humanity can hope for a history without violence." But when individuals "have the misfortune or good luck to live in an epoch, or in a moment in which a nation's or society's traditional ground crumbles, and willy-nilly man has to reconstruct human relations himself, then each man's liberty is a mortal threat to all other men, and violence reappears." Merleau-Ponty followed Machiavelli in conceiving an epoch as a time of (re)foundation freighted with primal violence.

    For Hannah Arendt, the French Revolution inaugurated an "epoch of world history" in which "politics became a matter of foreign affairs" and in which the "pathos of novelty" combined with the "two-edged compulsion of ideology and terror" to produce the "chaos of violence." Even more strongly than Merleau-Ponty, though also guided by Machiavelli, she focused, as noted before, on the quintessential linkage of revolution and new foundation. Of course Arendt, like Merleau-Ponty, was intensely concerned with the colossal difficulties of preserving the spirit and intention of the founding act during the institutionalization of the new regime.

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File created: 8/7/2007

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