Wednesday, October 31, 2007
The Thermidorian posted by Richard Seymour
One of the weakest arguments about the 'new philosophers' of France, unfortunately repeated in Julian Bourg's otherwise excellent From Revolution to Ethics: May 1968 and Contemporary French Thought, is that they took the logical step from their previous Maoist commitments, and moved straight from a critique of Stalinism to a critique of Marxism as such. A logical - even 'dialectical' - progression. You see this argument elsewhere: look at the neocons, aren't they all ex-Trots, or at least don't they owe their messianic doctrine to Trotsky? Aren't they the logical heirs of his internationalism, his revolutionary zeal etc? I don't think this holds water, for a variety of reasons that I won't go into, but one can see how a critique of Stalinism has been helpful to various styles of public intellectual in clarifying arguments while moving to the right. Yet, the role of anti-Stalinism for a revolutionary socialist, for example, is logically discontinuous with its role in the thought of someone who embraces Robert Conquest and regards Anglosphere social-democracy as the best future for mankind. The assertion of continuity may well reduce itself to the Stalinist stipulation that Trotskyism was already counterrevolutionary. (One of my favourite examples is La Pasionaria arguing, after a full year of Trot-hunting has almost destroyed the revolution and given the fascists the upper hand in the civil war that it was the POUM after all who worked on behalf of the German Gestapo, and who imitated Mussolini, and who assisted Franco).
What I like so much about Badiou's argument about The Thermidorian Subject is that it cuts this argument to shreds. Badiou points out that many of the prosecutors of the French Revolution were once its most fervent advocates, but rather than assenting to Soubol's position that the terrorists of the Directory really brought the logic of Jacobin terror to a head, he pinpoints the structural difference. It is not that the apparent 'opposite' actually embodies the real spirit of the revolution (raised under the banner of equality, it actually introduces capitalist inequality etc), but that each political sequence has its own internal logic which at some point exhausts all its capacities. The revolution proceeds, exhausts its capacities, and now there are those who act as agents of termination: they don't simply accept the limits of the revolution, they actively seek to mystify the revolution, to make it incomprehensible, to decouple its statements from the context, so that it can be seen instead as an expression of some satanic or totalitarian temptation. (Hence, May 1968 is less an expression of deep dissatisfaction with the Gaullist state, an unwillingness to accept the burden of the growing crisis of capitalism, an attempt to urgently re-order the world given the manifest paucity of the models of East and West, than a sort of sustained tribute to the allure of the Soviet Union). Those who were the revolution's agents recognise the crisis, and elect to become the agents of its domestication or liquidation.
Badiou delves into the pertinent background of his selected periods of reaction (he is drawing a sustained parallel between the 'new philosophers' and the Thermidorians), particularly the collusion with empire and capital (one worry was that the Haitian revolt continued - and of course, Napoleon came up with a brilliant idea of killing every resident of Haiti, sometimes by gassing on board ships, and replacing them with 'docile' Africans). But I think what's most telling about it is the understanding of the different roles of terror in a revolutionary and post-revolutionary society. Not only did terror not stop after the sequence of 1792-4; it actually acquired some intriguing new dimensions, so that the state took upon itself the right to regulate adjectives (for example, a club could no longer be "popular", since this was a threat to propertied interests, and at any rate all collectivities tended to be frowned on). For the revolutionary, terror is a substitute for political virtue; for the counter-revolutionary, terror is a means to secure a peaceful accumulation of property. The Thermidorian not only adapts to but ushers in the new situation as perfectly legitimate, what was intended all along even, and much more comprehensible than the utterings of fanatics who may have taken control of the revolution or infected it. Terror is perfectly alright provided it is vended in defense of property, and the political space in which property is accumulated, but demented when used to undermine property or restructure the political space in favour of more liberty (for Haitians) but less property (for French owners) etc. It is comprehensible in light of interests, but not in the pursuit of virtue. The Thermidorian moralises, but only because (s)he expects that this is what the plebians require - (s)he wants no part of virtue, because that is a dangerous autonomous component that threatens the social peace that makes the pursuit of interests possible.