Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Reign of Terror

I'm fairly liberal. To some, I'm sure I seem extremely liberal. To others, I'm sure I'm not liberal enough. The sliding scale of liberalism and conservatism stretches farther than the eye can see on both sides, and you can always take things farther.

That said, I never want to lose the moderate notion that the people who disagree with me are still people, and that they generally hold their views for good reasons. Or, at least, for reasons that make sense to them. I don't think it's safe to assume that the people who disagree with you are less intelligent than you, or that they are holding their views for selfish or malevolent purposes.

Given that, today I'm going to write a little bit about a point in history in which terror and violence came, not from conservatives, but from a nation whose liberalism had run out of control. I'm talking about France in the 1790s, in the midst of the French Revolution.

The problem with conservatism is usually that it leads to a consolidation of wealth for the rich and powerful, leaving the poor and the disenfranchised to live on less and less. As the few grow wealthier and the many grow hungrier, eventually revolution comes. And so it did in France during the reign of King Louis XVI, shortly after the American Revolution gave the hungry people of France a vision of a nation where the people ruled, and monarchs were obsolete.

The people took over, and a republican government was formed. And, when that new government failed to produce the food and stable economy the people wanted, another government was formed. And so it went, and the left-leaning politicians of the time started to eradicate anything that wasn't progressive enough.

The Church, for instance. France was a thoroughly Catholic country in the 1700s, and at first the Church was in favor of the revolution. Then the Church was stripped of its political power and its income from tithes. Then they were stripped of their land. Then its priests were forced to take a vow of loyalty to the country above all loyalties, including their religion. Eventually the left-wing radicals proceeded to deface the churches around the country, and priests who refused to take the vow of loyalty were either exiled, forced into hiding, or summarily executed. The imagery of Christianity in the cathedrals was replaced with new imagery for the Church of Reason, and even the calendar was replaced for being too closely tied to the Church.

When we hear about a "war on Christmas" today, it's kind of a joke. Yet if we look at the events during the Reign of Terror, Christianity itself was indeed being systematically eliminated over the course of a few short years. It's sobering to think that everything the Christian Right fears to be happening has indeed happened before, and I'm surprised they never seem to bring up the Reign of Terror as concrete, historical justification for their concern.

Meanwhile in politics, early leaders of the revolution found themselves turn rapidly from liberal heroes to moderates to closet royalists over the course on a year or two without themselves ever actually changing their views. The liberal revolution swept by them, and the next wave of heroes, and the next as the new requirements for being a righteous liberal kept shifting farther and farther to the left. At some point, being labeled a "moderate" was a literal death sentence. They say Madame de Révolution had a tendency to eat her children, especially once the Reign of Terror hit full swing.

Maximilien Robespierre was one of the most vocal and righteous members of the revolution. He believed the people of the country were fundamentally good, and he was absolutely dedicated to democracy and the rule of the people. He gained the name "the Incorruptible" unironically. He thought the people leading the country should be honest and pure, and he opposed the death penalty for enemies of the state. In short, I can identify with him very much. Which is why his legacy as the leader of the Reign of Terror disturbs me so.

An excerpt of Robespierre's justification for terror:
It has been said that terror is the principle of despotic government. Does your government therefore resemble despotism? Yes, as the sword that gleams in the hands of the heroes of liberty resembles that with which the henchmen of tyranny are armed. Let the despot govern by terror his brutalized subjects; he is right, as a despot. Subdue by terror the enemies of liberty, and you will be right, as founders of the Republic. The government of the revolution is liberty's despotism against tyranny. Is force made only to protect crime? And is the thunderbolt not destined to strike the heads of the proud?
Indulgence for the royalists, cry certain men, mercy for the villains! No! Mercy for the innocent, mercy for the weak, mercy for the unfortunate, mercy for humanity.  

Society owes protection only to peaceable citizens; the only citizens in the Republic are the republicans. For it, the royalists, the conspirators are only strangers or, rather, enemies. This terrible war waged by liberty against tyranny- is it not indivisible? Are the enemies within not the allies of the enemies without? The assassins who tear our country apart, the intriguers who buy the consciences that hold the people's mandate; the traitors who sell them; the mercenary pamphleteers hired to dishonor the people's cause, to kill public virtue, to stir up the fire of civil discord, and to prepare political counterrevolution by moral counterrevolution-are all those men less guilty or less dangerous than the tyrants whom they serve?
In short, says Robespierre, tyranny is justified when dealing with tyranny. It seemed like at some point he agreed with me that methods matter, but in the seat of power and with the efficiency of the National Razor eventually the ends seemed to justify the means.

But what end? At least 40,000 French citizens were executed in less than a year all across the country by the power of some very smart, well-meaning people. And, in the end, the people were still hungry, the enemies of rampant liberalism only grew, and the monarchy was eventually restored. It's a lesson worth dwelling on.


  1. As an uncertain, religiously motivated social conservative/fiscal liberal (or something?) I think about this kind of thing a lot, and in ways that I worry are frequently self-serving. So it was a pleasure to read it through some less partial eyes.

    I read a book about the Khmer Rouge a couple of years ago that's chilling in the same way, and that I haven't been able to keep far out of mind since—you probably know the story already. A bunch of really smart, idealistic left-wing students from a country that's been devastated again and again by imperialism and colonialism get together and vow to do better by all their fellow Cambodians. Well-meaning liberals in the West back them, and (not unreasonably) dismiss the intermittent and poorly sourced horror stories escaping the country as pro-royalist, pro-status-quo propaganda.

    The really smart, idealistic students study hard, they seize power from a corrupt government, and then they promptly annihilate 20% of the population in ways that are incomprehensibly barbaric. (The one I read, which I recommend if you have the stomach for it, is "Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare." If you want to borrow it I think I have it floating around here somewhere.)

    I have a hard time thinking through this without my brain landing on "We should all just be moderate," which I think can't be quite right, because as you pointed out it's amazing how fast the window shifts for what "moderate" means. (Certainly the far left and the far right are capable of basically the same evil.) That point about methods is really interesting to me—I think maybe if your worldview allows you to take your eye off the fundamental value of a human life for even a moment, even if it's to right a whole host of wrongs, you're opening yourself to—this.

    1. Really, social conservative? That's not a...common admission, why do you consider yourself that?


    2. I can certainly see the attractiveness of trying to stay moderate, adjusting what that means as the scale slides one way or the other. There's two problems with that, though:

      First, it leads to a lot of wishy-washy conversation that satisfies nobody. Politicians love this route, as they get to basically promise nothing and end up offending the fewest people, which tends to lead to a win in general elections.

      Second, even moderation should probably be taken in moderation. Just as moderates can be demonized by hard-line left- and right-wingers, there is also a hard-line moderate notion that demonizes any extreme view.

      Instead, I think we should be honest about the fact that we have a pretty wide range of views. I suspect that a (civil) debate between the far left and the far right will expose more of the truth than a debate between a somewhat left-leaning moderate and a somewhat right-leaning moderate. But that's just hypothesis.

      A tangential note: the terms "left-wing" and "right-wing" originate from the French Revolution. In the early days of the revolution the country was being governed by the National Constituent Assembly. In the meeting hall, the people who agreed with each other tended to group together. As a result, the people to the far right of the hall were the ones who opposed the revolution, and the people at the far left of the hall wanted to completely abolish the monarchy. The people in the middle wanted something in between--a constitutional monarchy, like the one in England.