In Defence of the Terror: Liberty or Death in the French Revolution

September 20, 2012

Terror is indefensible and this book is not a defence of the Terror nor, despite the hints and murmurings in Slavoj Žižek's unhelpful introduction, a defence of terrorism. The oddly translated title is misleading, and the original French subtitle, Essay on the Terror and Terrorism, gives a much clearer idea of what is at stake. Written in the direct aftermath of 9/11 (and published in the original French in 2003), it is a work of historical recovery. Sophie Wahnich illuminates the origins of the French revolutionary terror in an effort to help us to think clearly about the relationships between revolution, violence and terror in general.

Wahnich's highly theoretical essay tries to disentangle terror from other aspects of revolution. The essay turns on her account of the massacres of September 1792. The prison massacres followed the overthrow of the monarchy the previous month by an alliance of Parisian radicals and National Guardsmen. Deputies sent from the Legislative Assembly and the Paris Commune to end the killing were unable to gain control of the events. What Wahnich wants us to recognise through the horror is that the perpetrators of the massacre thought they had the right to enact "popular justice", and ignore the constitutional powers, because they were the sovereign people.

Direct sovereignty had reverted to the people because the constitutional powers had not defended justice and had failed to depose the monarch or to organise for war. The violence of the September Massacres was not the Terror, however. The Terror was the set of institutions, such as the revolutionary tribunal, that took sovereignty, and the power of vengeance, back out of the hands of the people and into the state. Through the trial of King Louis XVI, the creation of the institutions of exceptional justice and finally the declaration of a government "revolutionary until the peace", the sovereign power, represented most vividly by the power of putting to death, was reabsorbed. That apparatus reached a crescendo, and then collapsed, in the summer of 1794.

Terror, the Terror and terrorism denote very different things: a psychological state, a historical event and a set of political practices, but they are bound together by their history. Terrorism, argues Wahnich, did not drive the Terror; terrorism emerged from it. The great strength of this essay is its insistence on seeing terror as a historical phenomenon you can understand and explain, and therefore in principle avoid. Although the book does not defend terror, it does mount a defence of revolution. It defends the revolution of natural right. In revolutions, citizens do not primarily defend their rights, but create a substantive idea of justice that defines the people as a collective agent. The experience of active citizenship clarifies intuitions of justice and offers the alternative to representative politics, and it has been again among us in Tahrir Square and the Occupy movements. Unfortunately, Wahnich is too seduced by the drama of Robespierre and the Montagnards to interrogate their claim to represent the paradigm of revolution with the same acuity and originality she brings to the Terror. She remains committed to the traditional narrative of the revolution and so, for her, the fall of the revolutionary government offers nothing other than reaction. Robespierre failed to create institutions of natural right, of democratic rule. Wahnich allows his failure, and that of the Montagnards he inspired, to limit her imagination of political possibilities. One can only hope the same is not true of contemporary revolutionaries.

In Defence of the Terror: Liberty or Death in the French Revolution

By Sophie Wahnich

Verso, 144pp, £12.99. ISBN 9781844678624

Published 13 September 2012

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