“If the spring of popular government is virtue, the springs of popular government in revolution are at once virtue and terror; virtue without terror is fatal; terror without virtue is powerless.”
The history of the French Revolution is, more than anything, a reflection of those that look into it. It is a history of histories, one which has been hijacked and spun so many times that objectivity is nearly impossible. In the introduction of Verso’s fine edition of Virtue and Terror, Slavoj Zizek attempts to frame the question in the most straightforward manner, while still placing his own interpretation in the long line of Terror studies that date back to 1793 itself. Even now there is still a powderkeg of rationale and interpretation which the modern viewer is encumbered by.
One has only to think of the way that twentieth century communists attempted to fashion history, as they saw the French Revolution as the first building block of a socialist project. Other historians during the 30s saw the struggle of the left wing government in Spain fighting off the fascist powers of the world as being eerily reminiscent of the French Revolution during its violent infancy. Contemporary historians (and this writer has been guilty of this) read the Reign of Terror as one of the first modern police states, desperate to get rid of the OTHER, get rid of this creeping fifth column of outsiders who are plotting from within to destroy the revolution.
In his introduction, Zizek digs even deeper, intimating that not only did the revolution had recourse to violence during the Terror Days, but that it needed that violence to carry through a genuine revolution. Liberals disagree ferociously; as Zizek mentions, Liberals want 1789 without the 1793, a sort of neutered, caffeine-free version of revolution. Zizek feels that a radical rupture must take place if you want to avoid the mush-mouthed constitutional monarch, a la Britain. It is this fever for the new which drove the French Revolution forward, why it wanted to export the revolution. As Danton, once would-be ally of Robespierre put it, “Audacity, Audacity, More Audacity”.
Robespierre was a committed national liberal in the beginning of the Revolution, and he was more interested in his own back yard before knocking on his neighbor’s door. But the encroaching menace of the counter-revolution was already beginning to draw heated discussion, as it has with nearly every other revolutionary state. Time and time again, a besieged nation will begin to look askance at it’s own citizens, wondering if, just maybe, that person is working for al Qaeda, or the British, or the Royalists. The Reign of terror was to systematize this protean fear, and make it into a clockwork system of checks and balances to determine who out there is a real threat to society.
It backfired, as these things do. A perfect terror machine will run out of legitimate targets and begin to feed on itself. It happened in Russia, where Stalin himself had to step and put an end to it. It happened in France too, where it had become apparent that Robespierre was more interested in getting rid of political thorns in his side. Robespierre was both the author and victim of his own creation.
As Zizek mentions in his intro, contemporary radicals tend to lean toward the bloody days of 1793. Not that they embrace wholesale slaughter of innocents, but they recognize that a final, (possibly violent) break with the past is necessary in order to move on into the future. If this sounds a little millenarian, that’s because it is. Most revolutionaries strive to bring better things to this earth – it may not happen in their lifetime, but doesn’t negate the irresistible force which leads men and women to rebel against their masters.