Wednesday, 18 July 2012

montagnarde1793: (République française)
Dear everyone,

The connection between the French Revolution of violence is real and important. There's revolutionary and counterrevolutionary violence, popular violence and individual violence, official* violence in all its myriad permutations, etc. No one is denying this. No one has ever denied this. No one. Ever. No seriously, I dare you to find me a person who has ever denied this.

*This is not always particularly clear-cut, needless to say.

However, aside from the caveat that the Revolution was not *uniquely* violent, which I would discuss, except that would just be another way of discussing violence, let's get a couple of things straight:

1) The Revolution is not exclusively about violence - especially in the literal sense of killing people. Even if you're among those who think - and please try, while you're over there being "objective" to recognize that this is in fact a debatable proposition - that violence is the very essence of the Revolution, you have to acknowledge that there are topics pertaining to the Revolution that can be studied without getting into a huge discussion on violence.

2) It's therefore all right to talk or publish about aspects of the Revolution without necessarily discussing how they relate back to the issue of violence. Why? Because no one would ever reach a complete understanding of the Revolution if it were only permissible to talk about one aspect of it, however important that aspect might be. Does this mean that any article on the Revolution that doesn't discuss violence is trying to sweep it under the rug? Obviously not; see above. This does mean, however, that those asshole "historians" who dismiss Florence Gauthier's work on natural rights philosophy not on its own merits but because it doesn't discuss violence are dismissing any attempts to understand the Revolution as anything other than the orgy of violence they've decided, a priori, that it should be.

3) You don't have to put a disclaimer at the beginning of your book deploring revolutionary violence. (Because it's never counterrevolutionary violence, is it?) If your book isn't about violence, it's off-topic; if your book is about violence, you're not displaying your objectivity, you're displaying your need to flatter your reader's prejudices. Look, either you're ultimately going to end up condemning revolutionary violence or justifying all or (more likely) part of it. In the former case, you obviously don't need the disclaimer, in the latter case the disclaimer is cowardly - as in "I just want to reassure you before we begin that I'm not one of *those* people, you know, the mythical evil scapegoats who are glad that the counterrevolution was so violently opposed to natural rights and popular sovereignty  so that revolutionaries could have a chance to kill people or who literally agree that every act of violence committed by someone claiming to be on the side of the Revolution was just fine" - and in any case, shouldn't the attempt to understand and break down the who-what-where-when-why of the revolutionary violence precede any judgments you might have to make?

4) If you're ever attending a talk or presentation or anything of that nature on the Revolution that isn't explicitly about violence, you're not doing anyone any favors by derailing the Q&A session afterwards in order to make the speaker address the issue. Moreover, if you do this and the speaker seems to brush off your question, do not assume that s/he doesn't know how to answer it. More likely s/he is just looking to spend the time it would have taken to given a thorough answer on something relevant to the talk. Note that if the subject is, say, women and suffrage in the French Revolution, it would be perfectly appropriate to ask about whether women were ever attacked for attempting to vote or whether they ever employed violence in order to obtain that right and in what contexts, or some other question directly relevant to the topic. An example of an inappropriate question would be "It sounded like you said something vaguely positive about the Revolution at some point in your talk. But what about the violence?" Now, this is an ignorant and douchey question at the best of times, but when it's off-topic, it's worse. If you really want to know about violence and the Revolution, there are plenty of books and articles and lectures devoted to that. Read the books and articles, go to the lectures. If you want to know what a given speaker thinks about violence in the Revolution, or any other topic unrelated to their talk, ask them afterwards. If you're not an asshole about it, they'll probably be perfectly willing to discuss the topic.

Now on to Part II of this ridiculous long post, the question of revolutionary violence itself:

5) When we do discuss revolutionary violence, let's acknowledge that it's a complicated question (or rather, an interlocking series of complicated questions) with no simple answers. I'm frankly not sure there was any way to avoid violence of some kind or another. If the Revolution hadn't happened, there would still be all the violence of the Ancien régime - and of course, revolutions do not happen by an individual conscious decision, so in that sense justifying or condemning the Revolution itself is an exercise in futility.

But taking the Revolution as a fact, you can then either condemn its ideas, in which case you're likely to condemn any attempt to defend them, violent or otherwise, or you support them.

If you support them but think that all violence and all repression is categorically wrong and refuse to defend the Revolution by anything that could be construed as violent means... Well, guess what, the counterrevolution hasn't disarmed (and I don't just mean the official ultra-royalist émigré army refractory priest type insurrection, I also mean the so-called "moderates" in the Assemblies with their abrogations of rights and their economic violence and their martial law). So either everyone follows your lead and the Revolution and its ideals are defeated and you lose your rights and probably your life as well, in which case counterrevolutionary violence still happens and you return to the violence of the Ancien régime and you nobody has any rights once again (which is probably not the outcome you were looking for if your revolutionary convictions were half as strong as your convictions about non-violence).

But the question becomes even more complicated once you'e accepted the principle that some form of revolutionary violence may be justified, because there again, there aren't necessarily simple lines to be drawn.

The institution of representatives on mission is a great example of this.
Put yourself in the shoes of a conventionnel for a moment (I find it's always useful to put yourself in the shoes of whoever's actions you're trying to understand, though I'm told to be really objective you need to judge everything against what the "conventional wisdom" of your own time and place dictates, because this allows you to keep a *proper* distance). There's a war on. Whether you were for it or not, it's a fact now and there's nothing you can do about that. Let's put aside the possibility that you're actually a counterrevolutionary plant for a moment and assume you want to see the Revolution and the Republic succeed.

Most historians agree that France did not have the administrative apparatus in place in 1793 to win the war without recourse to the representatives on mission. This certainly seems to have been the appreciation at the time as well. Now, then as now, it was plain to see that if you give any group of people extraordinary powers there will be abuses. No matter how good you think you are at weeding out untrustworthy, corrupt or overly violence-happy individuals from this group, there will always be some who fool you. So do you reject the idea of representatives on mission out of hand and let the Republic fall (with all the attendent violence and loss of rights) or do you go ahead with it, doing your best to screen candidates before hand and to correct abuses when they do happen, by recalling representatives who abuse their powers? 

This is why these questions don't have  a simple answer. Because not only does violence - and not only violence but other negative outcomes, because while I respect one's right to believe that violence is the worst of all possible outcomes, that belief certainly doesn't go without saying - still happen as a result of rejecting violence, but adopting an institution that produces the mitraillades of Lyon or the noyades of Nantes as an inevitable side effect of its main purpose when your only other choice is to let the Republic die and its supporters and ideals with it does make you indirectly responsible for those abuses even as condemning them and doing everything you can to stop them works to clear you.

I'm sure every revolutionary would have prefered for the Revolution to have been possible without violence, but you'd have to be exceedingly naive to believe that this was actually the case.

To sum up: 1) the only way to eliminate all violence from the French Revolution is to live in an alternate reality in which those in power give that power up without a fight and in which Early Modern Europe was in general a non-violent place, 2) if your goal is simply not to be directly responsible for any kind of violence or repression or threat of violence nor to associate with anyone who is, I can respect that provided you accept the consequences of holding that point of view and that you realize that you're prioritizing non-violence over all other principles, 3) if you do decide to prioritize the people's rights over non-violence you may not always be able to keep violence from getting out of hand and you may not succeed, but this is the only option where you have even a possibility of seeing the Revolution and the Republic come to fruition.

When it comes to condemning revolutionary violence as a historian/modern person, there are really only seven possibilities:
1) You are in fact a counterrevolutionary
2) You're really naive enough to believe that the counterrevolution a) was a figment of revolutionaries' fevered imagination, b) was only violent in response to revolutionary violence and would have just allowed the Revolution to happen without a fight if the revolutionaries hadn't insisted on being so rude about it and had instead been kind and gentle and persuasive or somesuch
3) You are in favor of revolutionary ideals like natural rights, but you believe nothing can ever justify violence even in self defense and would rather die or be enslaved than inflict violence on anyone
4) You don't condemn all revolutionary violence in principle, but you draw the line at certain points of principle
4a) You're all right with certain other manifestations of violence or repression, but you think, say, the law of suspects was unnecessary
4b) You're all right with certain other manifestations of violence or repression, but you think, say, the law of suspects was necessary or at least justifiable based on results, but whatever the consequences, the principle behind the law is unacceptable to you
4c) You're all right with certain other manifestations of violence or repression, but you think, say, the law of suspects is wrong on principle and convince yourself that this in itself means that it was unnecessary (this could equally be considered a variation on 2)
5) You condemn the abuses stemming from an otherwise necessary principle (c.f above, representatives on mission)
6) You cynically use the condemnation of violence (often along with sweeping other instances of violence under the rug, as is convenient for your narrative) to conceal your real reasons for condemning some aspect of the Revolution (often overlaps with 1, feigned version of 2; can apply to revolutionary actors as well in the variant of using violence when convenient and condemning it when inconvenient, not out of scruple, but for advancement of a particular political agenda)
7) You condemn revolutionary violence in hindsight because the Revolution "failed"*
7a) For you, part or all of it would have been justifiable if the Revolution had "succeeded" according to your standards of success, but since it failed it was a waste
7b) For you, however laudable their ideals, all Revolutions are doomed to failure, so any violence employed to defend them is unjustifiable

*Also not as clear-cut a proposition as it might seem.

As to my feelings on the matter: I'm not going to like you if you're 1, but I can't fault you for hypocrisy unless you're also 6. If you're 2 I can't take you seriously and will often not be able to help suspecting that you're really 6. If you're 3, I disagree but respect your integrity. 4, both 4a and 4b, and 5, are where I see the most room for discussion. I think most people would actually probably fit somewhere there if they had to think about it. I certainly do. There can be disagreements in this territory, sometimes absolutely fundamental ones and naïveté and cynicism can come into play there too. A real case of 4c I can't respect because it's intellectually dishonest and/or naive, but it's often difficult in practice to distinguish it from 4a and 4b. 6 can overlap with everything and is for that reason is even more difficult to determine. I see 7 crop up a lot and I find it flippant and doctrinaire at the same time. Most 7s haven't seriously reflected on the situation or attempted to put themselves in an actor of the period's shoes, in my experience.

These are my basic views. And really that's only the tip of the iceberg, as I imply with points 4 and 5 of my last list (sorry this post has so many lists!), here there be further complications. Which is at least one reason why every discussion on the French Revolution can't be about violence. We'd never get to discuss anything else, which would be sad. Also, come on, does anyone seriously believe that it's innocent that every discussion of the French Revolution has to be about violence? Seriously?

S&F,
Estella


PS: TL;DR version: I am willing to talk about violence and the French Revolution at length (cf the rest of this post), but all our collective conversations about the French Revolution cannot and should not be about violence.

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