From Hobson's Choice
Jacobinism was the contemporaneous term for the extreme ideology of the Terror during the French Revolution, as well as the character of the regime that followed. In 1793, the Jacobin "club," or caucus in the National Assembly, achieved a virtual monopoly of power; at this point, the Committee for Public Safety was created, which could put people to death virtually at will. The Committee quickly became an instrument for the personal ideology of Maxmillian Robespierre, who sought to establish absolute control over the economy and the religious views of the nation. Robespierre used mass executions in the countryside to push Christianity underground, created an ersatz "Cult of the Supreme Being," and tried to use totalitarian power to stop the hyperinflation. In 1794, an elaborate conspiracy turned the powers of the Committee against him and he was executed after 14 months of tyranny. Soon after the power of the Committee itself was broken.
There were four main thrusts of the Revolutionary agenda that received their strongest impetus during the Terror:
- the dechristianization of France,
- mastery of the currency,
- liquidation of aristocratic foundations of power,
- creation of a capable state bureaucracy.
The dechristianization campaign was partly the result of the existence of a very powerful reactionary force in French society in the form of the clergy, one that transcended the monarchy itself. The clergy were understood as having an adversarial relationship to the monarchy as well as a supportive one; they acted as a counterweight to national reforms. The clergy's universalist role prevented the monarchy from being zealously pro-France, or pro-French particularism, in a way that was required of it in the late 18th century. The clergy had used its grip on France to build up a financial empire, one that was long divorced from any Christian ideals. Hence, in the late 18th century there was popular revulsion against the Church, and this spilled over into popular anti-pietism.
Oddly enough, the conquest of the state (on behalf of the nation) over the currency was closely related. Prior to the French Revolution, money led an existence independent of the nation whose sovereign issued it; even when it was paper money, it was usually subject to the will of one who could convert it directly to gold. Nation-states required immense ratios of circulating medium to precious metals, and hence were in an awkward position as successors to monarchies. Hence, the object of replacing precious metals as the foundation of currency; when the National Assembly proposed the creation of an authentically national currency, it proposed to back it with lands expropriated from the Church; this was the assignat, which suffered extreme hyperinflation before its replacement by the mandat. Enforcement of the assignat as legal tender in France was another occasion for state violence.
Contrary to what readers of A Tale of Two Cities might suppose, only a minority of aristocrats were executed, and their estates were not systematically liquidated. However, the straitjacket over lands and states that the aristocracy enjoyed was broken, which ushered in an age of capitalism in France. The aristocracy was subjected to taxation, and lost its power to levy taxes over feudal domains. The real target were institutions that favored the nobility.
Finally, the bloodiest component of the Revolution was its endeavor to establish an effective nationwide bureaucracy. The Revolution had established itself in Paris, and had to conquer the rest of France, then impose its will on France. Under attack by all Europe, the Revolution was obligated to conscript huge numbers of men and train them to defend the new republic.
The Reaction to the Revolution began in 1794 with the "White Terror," which involved vigilantism and gang violence. Later, the nation came under the rule of the Directory, which allowed the various powerful interests in France to act independently of each other. The Directory lasted four years before it conspired in its own overthrow by Napoleon Bonaparte.
In the ensuing years, the Terror of Robespierre was singularly odious in Europe, although some survived who believed it was the Thermidorean Reaction that betrayed the hopes of the Revolution. In the 1830's, with disgust at the mediocrity that Bourbon France had become, another revolution ousted the Bourbons and the glory of the original Revolution was revived. It became commonplace to revere the ambition of transforming society along rational lines, as utterly as capitalism was in fact doing.
An oddly-named group of neo-Jacobins were the followers of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon; known as "anarchists," they actually were (at the time) quite possibly the most far-reaching totalitarians of the era. In fact, it is reasonable to surmise that they adopted the term "anarchist" as a red herring; the idea of abolishing government sounds to a casual observer as a really daring call to liberty. While Anarchists have a huge variation in opinions, it is commonly assumed that the destruction of the existing social order would be so sweeping that there would cease to be any recognizable legal framework. The supposed paradox lies in the individual, for whom society acts as an intermediary and defender against the state, being suddenly thrown under the wheels of the Anarchist's peculiar intellectual bromides with neither conservative society nor rational state as a defense. States and societies are congeries, after all, of mutually supportive traditions and principles (such as the ones defining individual liberty). Hence, a dream of utterly and irrevocably transforming the social order requires the destruction of both, leaving the individual naked before a "meta-state," or entity that supplants the state for the means of implementing the Anarchist vision.
As mentioned, Anarchism varies immensely depending on whom one asks; all tended to construe their theories while insisting that they alone stood for absolute "freedom." Pyotr Kropotkin, still revered as the patron saint of anarchists, was utterly disgusted at the refusal of the French Revolution to push on with Khmer Rouge-style social transformation. Likewise, anarchist movements call for a revolution that will sweep away every aspect of the existing society.
Anarchism was to decline drastically in importance as a result of brushes with actual power in various regions of Europe. In Spain, for example, there was the experiment in Catalonia that ended in Falangist conquest. In Ukraine, there was the movement of Nestor Makhno that was eliminated by the Whites and Reds. The Marxists survived and recovered, even in regions where they were subjected to especially zealous persecution. One surmises they had the advantage of a retaliatory movement unafraid of conspiracy, organization, centralized action, and violence.
The 19th century produced an abortive movement that remains ineffectual centuries after the death of its godfather, Proudhon. Proudhon's disciples did eventually come to power as fascists, not as Anarchists; and their most memorable act was a proposal buried in Proudhon's private correspondence: a virulent judeophobe, Proudhon insisted the Jews be driven from Europe or exterminated. The 20th Century saw several experiments in Jacobinist totalitarianism.
The most obvious was the October Revolution that created the USSR. This actually ground to a halt in the 1920's with the New Economic Plan, and later created not socialism but a state corporation that controlled both political and economic life.
In Mexico, the Revolution of 1910 would lead to a 6-year civil war (1914-1920), which culminated in the creation of a massively powerful corporativist state dominated by a single party. The Jacobinist phase of the Mexican Revolution occurred during the presidency of Plutarcho Calles, when Mexican society was torn up by the roots.
In China, the Opium War (1839-1842) had left civil conflict and sporadic civil war running almost continuously through the remainder of Qing rule there. But Jacobinism really emerged in 1956, as the Chinese authorities found themselves dangerously isolated and struggling to meet urgent material needs of the greatest population on earth.
The Jacobinist variety of totalitarianism was at its most extreme in the killing fields of Cambodia, which sought to take the destruction of the prior social order to its logical conclusion, through the physical destruction of vast numbers of people. While the numbers who were actually murdered have probably been exaggerated--Cambodia's civil war was certain to have culminated in a famine, regardless of the victorious ideology--the Khmer Rouge did indeed inflict an ideological terror campaign that eclipsed all others.
- ↑ Pyotr A. Kropotkin believed Christianity existed exclusively through a network of commercial and economic power; he seems to have believed purges against believers did not constitute any infringement of liberty (The Great French Revolution, 1789-1793, Vanguard Press, 1927; see lxii.) It really would appear from a close reading of Kropotkin, who actually wrote at length on the subject, that he believed religious liberty per se was a betrayal of the revolution, and that by proclaiming it (6 Dec 1793) Robespierre in fact ended the Revolution. Kropotkin's views are significant because they were so mainstream to the European left of his day, and because he was the most respected anarchist (!) writer of his day.
- ↑ Friedrich Engels was another enthusiast of the dechristianization campaign of the French Revolution, which Robespierre officially ended 6 Dec 1793. Unlike Kropotkin, who believed Christianity had somehow become compulsory because it was no longer under the Jacobinist ban (?), Engels seems to have thought it was restored by Napoleon (Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1886); see Part 3); in fact, there were always Catholics in France, including revolutionary ones who loathed the excesses of the politicized church. Engels explains, accurately, that the universalizing mission of the Church tied it not only to each corner of the Trans-European Project, but also to the past:
But the great international centre of feudalism was the Roman Catholic Church. It united the whole of feudalized Western Europe, in spite of all internal wars, into one grand political system, opposed as much to the schismatic Greeks as to the Mohammedan countries. It had organized its own hierarchy on the feudal model, and, lastly, it was itself by far the most powerful feudal lord, holding, as it did, fully 1/3rd of the soil of the Catholic world. Before profane feudalism could be successfully attacked in each country and in detail, this, its sacred central organization, had to be destroyed.Engels seemed to have a very flippant attitude about coercion of this kind.
Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880), "History of the English middle-class"
- ↑ Dale K. Van Kley, The Religious Origins of the French Revolution: From Calvin to the Civil Constitution, Yale University Press (1999), p.135ff
- ↑ The Anarchists took over Catalonia, Spain in 1936 during the Civil War there and likewise launched a ferocious anti-Christian campaign. (George Orwell, writing about it with the utmost admiration in Homage to Catalonia.) Oddly, the essay linked is hosted at an anarchist website that also hosts "Misconceptions of Anarchism," declaring that anarchism is opposed to all forms of coercion.
Twelve years later Orwell began 1984, whose account of life under Ingsoc mentions that there are no laws. It becomes clear that Orwell's conception of the ultimate totalitarian society was one in which the profundity of the revolutionary transformation required the abolition of any legal framework that could tie the hands of the Thought Police.
- ↑ The large forum "Liberty for the People" includes a very large number of manifestos by anarchist organizations. If I cite one, a critic will wonder why I didn't cite another. However, I shall cite a few anyway: here's the "Workers Solidarity Federation" (of South Africa), which like all the other manifestos I read, disparages electoral paths to power and insists on exclusive reliance on armed revolution.
Scrolling down I notice the passage on "Why Marxism Failed," which makes some very accurate and telling points about the dictatorial character of the Marxist-Leninist regime created in the October Revolution. The protagonists whom Lenin & Trotsky crushed were the associations of trades unions, with their elections and congresses. How is this consistent with the perorations against elections and voting? Do the authors know that there were multiple revolutions in Russia (1917) and France (1789-1793?). If arms, rather than elections, decide which is the real one, the victorious revolution will indeed have a dictatorial character.
This pamplet, by the Workers Solidarity Movement in Ireland, is almost identical in every respect to the South African one; it even uses the same illustration of Chile. Note the scorn for all pre-existing forms of organization (including labor organizations).