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Authors: Sophie Wahnich

In Defence of the Terror


Liberty or Death in the French Revolution

Sophie Wahnich

Translated by David Fernbach

With a Foreword by Slavoj Žižek


This English-language edition first published by Verso 2012

© Verso 2012

Translation © David Fernbach 2012

First published as
La liberté ou la mort: Essai sur la Terreur et le terrorisme

© La Fabrique éditions 2003

Introduction © Slavoj Žižek 2012

All rights reserved

The moral rights of the authors have been asserted

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US: 20 Jay Street, Suite 1010, Brooklyn, NY 11201

Verso is the imprint of New Left Books

Ebook ISBN-13: 978-1-84467-928-7

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Wahnich, Sophie.

 [Liberté ou la mort. English.]

 In defence of the terror : liberty or death in the French Revolution / Sophie Wahnich ; translated by David Fernbach ; with a foreword by Slavojıiıek.

      p. cm.

 Original publication: Paris : La Fabrique Éditions, c2003:  La liberté ou la mort.

 Includes bibliographical references.

 ISBN 978-1-84467-862-4 (hardback) -- ISBN 978-1-84467-933-1 (ebook)

1.  France--History--Reign of Terror, 1793-1794. 2.  France--History--Revolution, 1789-1799. 3.  France--Politics and government--1789-1799. 4.  Terrorism.  I. Title.

 DC176.5.W3413 2012




For Lorenzo and Julia

I want never to forget how I was forced to become – for how long? – a monster of justice and intolerance, a narrow-minded simplifier, an arctic character uninterested in anyone who was not in league with him to kill the dogs of hell.

– René Char


Slavoj Žižek

From time to time, a book appears about which we can say: we were not waiting
for a book like this; this is
book we were waiting for. Sophie Wahnich's
In Defence of the Terror
is such a rare book: it cuts into the very heart of today's ethico-political predicament. How can a book about the French Revolution do this?

When, in 1953, Zhou En Lai, the Chinese premier, was in Geneva for the peace negotiations to end the Korean war, a French journalist asked him what he thought about the French Revolution; Chou replied: ‘It is still too early to tell.' The events of 1990 proved him spectacularly right: with the disintegration of the ‘people's democracies', the struggle for the historical place of the French Revolution flared up again. The liberal revisionists tried to impose the notion that the demise of communism in 1989 occurred at exactly the right moment: it marked the end of the era which began in 1789, the final failure of the statist-revolutionary model which first entered the scene with the Jacobins.

Nowhere is the dictum ‘every history is a history of the present' more true than in the case of the French Revolution: its historiographical reception has always closely mirrored the twists and turns of later political struggles. The identifying mark of all kinds of conservatives is a predictably flat rejection: the French Revolution was a catastrophe from its very beginning. The product of the godless modern mind, it is at the same time to be interpreted as God's judgement on humanity's wicked ways – so its traces should of course be kicked over as thoroughly as possible. The typical liberal attitude is a more differentiated one: its formula is ‘1789 without 1793'. In short, what the sensitive liberals want is a decaffeinated revolution, a revolution which does not smell of a revolution. François Furet proposed another liberal approach: he tried to deprive the French Revolution of its status as the founding event of modern democracy, relegating it to a historical anomaly. In short, Furet's aim was to de-eventalize the French Revolution: it is no longer (as for a tradition stemming from Kant and Hegel) the defining moment of modernity, but a local accident with no global significance, one conditioned by the specifically French tradition of absolute monarchy. Jacobin state centralism is only possible, then, against the background of the ‘L'état c'est moi' of Louis XIV. There was a historical necessity to assert the modern principles of personal freedom, etc., but – as the English example demonstrates – the same could have been much more effectively achieved in a more peaceful way . . . Radicals are, on the contrary, possessed by what Alain Badiou called the ‘passion of the Real': if you say A – equality, human rights and freedoms – then you should not shirk its consequences but instead gather the courage to say B – the terror needed to really defend and assert A.

Both liberal and conservative critics of the French Revolution present it as a founding event of modern ‘totalitarianism': the taproot of all the worst evils of the twentieth century – the Holocaust, the Gulag, up to the 9/11 attacks – is to be sought in the Jacobin ‘Reign of Terror'. The perpetrators of Jacobin crimes are either denounced as bloodthirsty monsters, or, in a more nuanced approach, one admits that they were personally honest and pure, but then adds that this very feature made their fanaticism all the more dangerous. The conclusion is thus the well-known cynical wisdom: better corruption than ethical purity, better a direct lust for power than obsession with one's mission.

Wahnich's book systematically undermines this predominant
. In a detailed historical analysis of the stages of Jacobin Terror, she first demonstrates how this Terror was not an uncontrolled explosion of destructive madness, but a precisely planned and controlled attempt to prevent such an explosion. She does what Furet wanted to do, but from an opposite perspective: instead of denouncing Terror as an outburst of some eternal ‘totalitarian' which explodes from time to time (millenarian peasants' revolts, twentieth-century communist revolutions . . .), Wahnich provides its historical context, resuscitating all the dramatic tenor of the revolutionary process. And then, in a detailed comparison between the French revolutionary Terror and recent fundamentalist terrorism, she renders visible their radical discontinuity, especially the gap that separates their underlying notions of justice. The first step towards correct politics is to break with false symmetries and similarities.

However, what is much more interesting is that, beneath all these diverging opinions, there seems to be a shared perception that 1989 marks the end of the epoch which began in 1789 – the end of a certain ‘paradigm', as we like to put it today: the paradigm of a revolutionary process that is focused on taking over state power and then using this power as a lever to accomplish global social transformation. Even the ‘postmodern' Left (from Antonio Negri to John Holloway) emphasizes that a new revolution should break with this fetishization of state power as the ultimate prize and focus on the much deeper ‘molecular' level of transforming daily practices. It is at this critical point that Wahnich's book intervenes: its underlying premise is that this shift to ‘molecular' activities outside the scope of state power is in itself a symptom of the Left's crisis, an indication that today's Left (in the developed countries) is not ready to confront the topic of violence in all its ambiguity – a topic which is usually obfuscated by the fetish of ‘Terror'. This ambiguity was clearly described more than a century ago by
Mark Twain, who wrote apropos of the French Revolution in
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

There were two ‘Reigns of Terror' if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless
cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; . . . 
our shudders are all for the ‘horrors' of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe, compared with life-long death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heart-break? . . . A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all
could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror – that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us have been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.

Does not the same duality characterize our present? At the forefront of our minds these days, ‘violence' signals acts of crime and terror, let alone great wars. One should learn to step back, to disentangle oneself from the fascinating lure of this directly visible ‘subjective' violence – violence performed by a clearly identifiable agent. We need to perceive the contours of the background which generates such outbursts. A step back enables us to identify a violence that sustains our very efforts to fight violence and to promote tolerance: the ‘objective' violence inscribed into the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems. The catch is that subjective and objective violence cannot be perceived from the same standpoint: subjective violence is experienced as such against the background of a non-violent zero-level of ‘civility'. It is seen as a perturbation of the normal, peaceful state of things. However, objective violence is precisely the violence inherent in this ‘normal' state of things. Objective violence is invisible since it sustains the very zero-level standard against which we perceive something as being subjective violence. Systemic violence is thus something like the notorious ‘dark matter' of physics, the counterpart to an all-too-visible subjective violence. It may be invisible, but it has to be taken into account if one is to make sense of what otherwise seem to be ‘irrational' explosions of subjective violence. Let us take a quick look at some of the cases of this invisible violence.

The story of Kathryn Bolkovac,
recently made into a film (
The Whistleblower
, dir. Larysa Kondracki, 2010), cannot but terrify any honest observer. In 1998 Bolkovac, a US police officer, successfully applied for a place in the UN's International Police Task Force in Bosnia-Herzegovina – under the auspices of a prominent defence contractor, DynCorp – and upon arrival, was assigned to a task force that targeted violence against women. Still new to this position, Bolkovac began to follow up leads which exposed a local sex-trafficking ring, apparently run by the Serbian mafia and dealing in very young girls from former communist-bloc countries – some of these girls were no older than twelve. But another link quickly surfaced: the girls' johns seemed to include UN contractors in Bosnia, and possibly some of Bolkovac's colleagues. Moreover, there were strong indications that UN personnel colluded with or even helped operate sex-trafficking rings in the region, and saw a profit from it.

Shocked by her findings, Bolkovac filed a series of reports with her superiors, but they were all either shelved or returned to her as ‘solved'. Nothing was done, and nothing changed – until Bolkovac was demoted and then sacked for ‘gross misconduct', well before her contract was up. Finally warned that her life was in danger, she was reduced to flight and left Bosnia with her investigative files and little else.

Bolkovac proceeded to sue DynCorp for ‘wrongful termination', and the suit was decided in her favour. As a result, DynCorp dismissed seven of its contractors in Bosnia for ‘unacceptable behavior' and publicized changes to its screening protocols. But this sex-trafficking scandal does not seem to have tarnished the company. DynCorp has continued to net massive State Department contracts, despite accusations of criminal misconduct in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. For example, a US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks cites DynCorp personnel who were seen taking drugs and hiring ‘dancing boys', a polite name for underage male prostitutes (and DynCorp is in Afghanistan, we should note, to train the new Afghan police corps).

New York Times
reviewer granted that ‘
The Whistleblower
tells a story so repellent that it is almost beyond belief.' However, in an incredible ideological
tour de force
, the same reviewer went on to denounce the film's very truthfulness as the cause of its aesthetic failure: ‘
The Whistleblower
ultimately fizzles by withholding any cathartic sense that justice was done, or ever will be done, once Kathryn spills the beans to the British news media.'
It is true, I suppose, that in real life we are far from the ‘cathartic sense' of films like
All the President's Men
The Pelican Brief
, in which the final disclosure of political crimes brings a kind of emotional relief and satisfaction . . .

And is not the lesson of Libya after Gaddafi's fall a similar one? Now we have learned that Gaddafi's secret services fully collaborated with their Western counterparts, including participating in programs of rendition. We can perhaps discern this kind of complicity between ‘rogue states' and the Western guardians of human rights at its most radical in Congo. The cover story of
magazine on 5 June 2006 was ‘The Deadliest War In the World' – a detailed report on how some 4 million people have died in Congo over the last decade as the result of political violence. None of the usual humanitarian uproar followed, just a couple of reader's letters – as if some filtering mechanism blocked this news from achieving its full impact. To put it cynically,
picked the wrong victim in the struggle for hegemony in suffering – it should have stuck to the list of usual suspects: Muslim women and their plight, the oppression in Tibet . . . It is Congo today which has effectively re-emerged as a Conradean ‘heart of darkness', yet no one dares to confront it. The death of a West Bank Palestinian child, not to mention an Israeli or an American, is mediatically worth thousands of times more than the death of a nameless Congolese. Why this ignorance?

On 30 October 2008, the Associated Press reported that Laurent Nkunda, the rebel general besieging Congo's eastern provincial capital Goma, said that he wanted direct talks with the government about his objections to a billion-dollar deal that gives China access to the country's vast mineral riches in exchange for a railway and highway. As problematic (neocolonialist) as this deal may be, it poses a vital threat to the interests of local warlords, since its eventual success would create the infrastructural base for the Democratic Republic of Congo as a functioning united state.

Back in 2001, a UN investigation on the illegal exploitation of natural resources in Congo found that conflict in the country is mainly about access to and control and trade of five key mineral resources: coltan, diamonds, copper, cobalt and gold. According to this report, the exploitation of Congo's natural resources by local warlords and foreign armies is ‘systematic and systemic', and the leaders of Uganda and Rwanda in particular (closely followed by Zimbabwe and Angola) had turned their armed forces into armies of business. The report concludes that permanent civil war and the disintegration of Congo ‘has created a “win–win” situation for all belligerents. The only loser in this huge business venture is the Congolese people'. One should bear in mind this good old ‘economic-reductionist' background when one reads in the media about primitive ethnic passions exploding yet again in the African ‘heart of darkness' . . . Beneath the facade of ethnic warfare, we thus discern the contours of global capitalism.

Today's capitalism likes to present itself as ethically responsible; however, its ‘ethical' face is the result of a complex process of ideological abstraction or obliteration. Companies dealing with raw materials extracted and exported in suspicious conditions (using de facto slaves or child labour) effectively practise the art of ‘ethical cleansing', the true business counterpart to ethnic cleansing: through reselling, etc., such practices obscure the origins of materials which are produced under conditions unacceptable to our Western societies.

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