Mansfield Fox

Law student. Yankees fan. Massive fraggle. Just living the American dream.

Monday, January 17, 2005

"Revolutions are Not Made with Rosewater"

Taking a brief break from studying the history of the common law to watch the new History Channel documentary on the French Revolution. It's been a long time since I'd thought about that unfortunate incident, and particularly about those despicable little Jacobins. (In case you can't tell, I'm not a big fan of the whole business.)

What hadn't occurred to me when I was learning about this stuff in high school/junior high history classes was the extent to which the Revolution prefigured the entire totalitarian project of the 20th century. Not just in the extent that it gave birth to Bonapartism dictatorship (though Old Boney can defer only to Mao, Stalin and Hitler in the scope of the destruction he unleashed). The Revolution itself gave sowed the seeds of totalitarianism. Robespierre was the first totalitarian. The Great Terror - with its omnipresent secret police, its constant threat of denunciation, its vision of massive political bloodletting as necessary for the preservation of the cause - is the acorn from which the oak of Nazi and Soviet repression would eventually spring. The Republic of Virtue is really the first totalitarian ideal expressed in the long, sad history of man: the idea not just that man must obey the state, nor merely that he must be brutalized into such obedience, but that he must be brutalized into loving the state.
But what is the fundamental principle of the democratic or popular government, that is to say, the essential strength that sustains it and makes it move? It is virtue: I am speaking of the public virtue which brought about so many marvels in Greece and Rome and which must bring about much more astonishing ones yet in republican France; of that virtue which is nothing more than love of the fatherland and of its laws.

If the strength of popular government in peacetime is virtue, the strength of popular government in revolution is both virtue and terror; terror without virtue is disastrous, virtue without terror is powerless. Terror is nothing but prompt, severe, and inflexible justice; it is thus an emanation of virtue....
I should get back to studying, so I'll leave it at that. Perhaps, after exams, I'll comment on this subject at greater length.