After spending so much time marinating in reactionary denunciation of the French Revolution, it’s become a bit odd remembering that some people still consider it to have been a positive development (or even like Ho Chi Minh that it’s “too soon to tell”). What I don’t think I can recall seeing before is people praising not just the initial moderate reformists that began it but Robespierre and the Reign of Terror (with the exception of some sick pre-teen girls). I was reading the latest post at the Hoover Hog which linked to a book review at Spiked Online. There at the top of the page I saw something that said
Remembering the Terror
Robespierre, incorruptibly committed to liberty, was no eighteenth-century Osama.
Clicking on the banner brought up a table of contents where it was instead titled “Defending the Terror”, which is arguably a more appropriate title for Dolan Cumming’s review of Virtue and Terror, presented by Slavoj Žižek. Robespierre is first contrasted with modern terrorists by saying
The London bombings were not ‘a good point badly made’, the criminal expression of legitimate grievances. They were wanton destruction: politically despicable and morally repugnant all at once. In contrast, the violent overthrow of a reactionary regime is often the means by which a new and free society is born.
This clues you in to how the rest of the piece will go: Robespierre had noble goals (as the bombers surely believed they had, no one is a villain in their own story) . Some people think such good intentions raise the communists above the Nazis, like Bryan Caplan I disagree. Even now I still come across the occasional person who endorses Hitler because the Allied powers had done all sorts of horrible things to Germany and there was a horrible communist threat, and I am willing to agree with those statements to a far larger degree than those who have been fed the patriotic version of history that maximally demonizes their country’s enemies. I also agree with the terrorists that the West has done plenty of horrible things to Muslim countries. The legitimacy (I’d like to eradicate that word) of their grievances does nothing to excuse their actions. By any reasonable analysis I can think of Hitler was among the worst things ever to happen to white people (and the German people more specifically). It is only through willful stupidity that they can ignore the unmitigated disaster of his rule, even from a white/german nationalist perspective, as they prattle on about how evil his enemies were.
So Robespierre was “committed to liberty”, provided that by liberty you don’t actually mean freedom of thought from violence at the hands of the state but instead “the people’s romance” of equality and fraternity and freedom from deviations from that utopian vision or freedom to deprive others of freedom. So if you are committed to that goal and support for the revolution, what went wrong?
Žižek suggests that the extreme violence that erupted as the Terror imploded, like Mao’s Cultural Revolution a couple of centuries later, was really a kind of displacement, not a case of ‘going too far’, but precisely a failure to ‘go all the way’ and change society fundamentally.
Similarly, supporters of the Iraq war lay the blame at our failure to “take the gloves off” or muster sufficient political will. This is what Julian Sanchez calls the carebear stare theory of politics. It is also reminds me of what Eliezer Yudkowsky calls “the halo effect“, where because you agree with someone’s principles they can’t be bad and therefore what they did is defensible. Politics is the mind-killer and you must support your comrades in arms.
A symptom of this is the relabeling of ideologies you dislike to always be on the opposite end of the left-right spectrum (another unfortunate legacy of the French Revolution) as the one you placed yourself on. Because the author of the review disagrees with the author of the book’s introduction on environmentalism he says
Rather than imposing the environmentalist agenda more rigorously, as Žižek suggests, we ought to insist that it is the needs and desires of people that come first, and that ‘natural’ limits must therefore be overcome rather than made sovereign. Green Terror would have more in common with the anti-Enlightenment, counter-revolutionary movement than with the spirit of the French Revolution, because environmentalism is implicitly conservative.
So it’s wrong because it’s implicitly conservative; on the other side. How about whether the actual results are desirable? Isn’t that relevant? (I should note that my fellow libertarians are also guilty of using this worthless tactic of merely identifying our ideology as being on the right side rather than desirable in itself, while socialists claim the same noble birthright)
Because the rightards are wrong about the leftards sympathizing with terrorists you will find the latter lumping islamists with the former, as if democratic western politics was any kind of sensible analogy to middle eastern autocracies. This example explicitly calls bin Laden a “crazed right-winger” and implicitly ties both him and the right to Hitler. Osama and his comrades, of course, are primarily motivated by what they see as the unjust regimes that rule their countries and which they wish to overthrow, and in the previous post on that blog they admit that those regimes are indeed so despicable that it’s “hard to know which side to root for”. Let me guess how they would characterize those regimes: they are averse to change or reform and primarily interested in maintaining the status-quo with their hold on power, therefore they are conservative. Their primary opposition to them are the islamists, who of course are awful from a leftist perspective (unless you’re Foucalt). So they can’t be on the left with you, therefore they are right-wingers. What a useless schema.
Cummings ends with a call to redouble our righteous efforts
Rather than settling for a shadow of politics, or redefining political ideals in line with contemporary prejudices, it is now up to us to make good the two-centuries-old promise of true popular sovereignty.
As if politics had done so much good as a mere shadow that its materialization would be heavenly. Death to your ideals, death to your hopes and death to your dreams. I want nothing to do with a world in which they are made manifest and the ugliness that must always result.