Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Zizek is the only person on the show who makes, or is allowed to make, any effort to explicitly defend the revolution on political grounds. But he is not an historian, just someone who has read and written an introduction to some of Robespierre's writings, and he is obviously there to be lampooned as just the sort of trendy intellectual whose dangerous abstractions could lead to the gulag. Between the talking heads, there is plenty of opportunity for caricature as various old-hand jobbing actors play out the roles of Robespierre, Saint Just, Carnot, Collot, etc. (They actually get 'Spider' from Coronation Street to play Collot, I think). And beyond that, there are scenes from twentieth century revolutions from Russia 1917 to Iran 1979, all of them apparently chilling events, overlaid with this abysmal musical refrain that I think is taken from Hans Zimmer's sountrack to The Thin Red Line. All of which banality is intended to corroborate the bare thesis that the revolution was the result of an excess of idealism that could not but lead to tyranny. The alternative explanations of the Terror - a complex, multi-faceted, and multi-agent response to external and internal threats - are glancingly dealt with. How many more times do we have to be subjected to this mediocre soap plot?
Schama himself is of course one of the primary authors of that narrative, having delivered himself of the verdict some two decades ago that the Revolution was nothing other than tyranny and collective terror: "violence was the Revolution itself". Like Pierre Chaunu, Stephane Courteois and François Furet, he insistently holds the French revolutionaries responsible for the gulag, supposedly anticipated in the 'genocide' in the Vendée (actually, as Arno Mayer has argued, the majority of those killed in the Vendée were effectively soldiers engaged in a military reaction against the Revolution). Like Furet, Popper and Talmon, it is to the excess of Rousseauian idealism and its application that he attributes the Terror, particularly to his idea of a 'General Will'. But the 'General Will', however problematic the idea may be, is hardly the blueprint for 'totalitarianism' that paranoid liberals would have you believe. In essence, it is nothing more than the idea that people should be bound by the collectively agreed laws that they have participated in making, even if they didn't agree with them, and that this is essential to prevent them from being subject to someone else's 'individual will'. Just because it doesn't affirm liberal atomism doesn't make it the basis for the evils of Stalinism, Nazism, the Khmer Rouge, etc. As Enzo Traverso has pointed out, such an ideocratic approach to the revolution both restores counterrevolutionary doctrine to mainstream wisdom in the guise of 'antitotalitarianism', and allows the Right to avoid historical analysis of the circumstances of the revolution.
All of this raises a question. The French Revolution was supposedly a heroic bourgeois revolution: the most complete, the most conscious, the most thoroughgoing attempt to destroy feudalism and create a modern, bourgeois society - or 'an independent centre of capital accumulation', as one might more drily and accurately put it. Yet, the bourgeoisie of today seems to loathe it. They want nothing to do with it. Their reasons for doing so are not really plausible. Oh yes, the Terror, the Terror... I don't see these people denouncing the American Revolution, (in fact, Schama praises it as the most fitting alternative) for all that many of the revolutionaries were authentic genocidaires and slave masters. Or is it only terror if white reactionaries are its subjects? And might we not also say a word or two about the terror of the Directory, practised on behalf of property, beyond the cliched 'irony' that the revolution was eaten by its own children? Or the terror of the counterrevolutionaries who, as Mayer points out, were not slackers in the business of indiscriminate murder and rape? No. I can't help feeling that what they despise, ostentatiously, is democracy. It is above all the very idea of such direct democracy, of the iruption of the masses and the sans-culottes (the real villains of the docu-drama) into the political sphere, that is scandalous.