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

Provocative reassessment of the Great Terror as a price worth paying
For two hundred years after the French Revolution, the Republican tradition celebrated the execution of princes and aristocrats, defending the Terror that the Revolution inflicted upon on its enemies. But recent decades have brought a marked change in sensibility. The Revolution is no longer judged in terms of historical necessity but rather by “timeless” standards of morality. In this succinct essay, Sophie Wahnich explains how, contrary to prevailing interpretations, the institution of Terror sought to put a brake on legitimate popular violence—in Danton’s words, to “be terrible so as to spare the people the need to be so”—and was subsequently subsumed in a logic of war. The Terror was “a process welded to a regime of popular sovereignty, the only alternatives being to defeat tyranny or die for liberty.”

Reviews

  • “We were not waiting merely for a book like this; this is the book we were waiting for.”
  • “A bold reconstruction of the emotions that drove the French revolutionaries to terror … [Wahnich’s] premise is that dismissive disgust at blood spilt and life lost is an edifying but overly simplistic and apolitical response to revolution past and present.”
  • “Our default position has become one of lazy dismissal: with all of the blood and brutality, how could we, why would we, want to consider the Terror as anything but a horror show? … Wahnich’s subversive reflection is that far from taking lives, the Terror was actually about saving them.”
  • “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.”
  • In Defence of the Terror is a provocative and compelling essay, well written and impressively concise, with a good mix of contemporary resonance and archival detail.”
  • “An intriguing take on modern social issues and history.”
  • “In this portable (5.5x8") study, Wahnich (the Laboratory of the Anthropology of Institutions and Social Organizations, France) goes against current historical interpretations of the Jacobin Terror of the French Revolution when she says that the Terror was a precisely planned and controlled attempt to prevent further violence by the public. She also compares the French revolutionary Terror with recent fundamentalist terrorism.”

Blog

  • Isolating Citizens: Sophie Wahnich on the separation of public and private freedom in France, from Le Chapelier to the Labour Law

    First published in French by Libération. Translated by David Broder.



    The 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen is part of our constitutional bloc. It sanctions a freedom limited by the principle of reciprocity set out in its fourth article: "Freedom consists of being able to do everything that does not harm others; thus the exercise of each man’s natural rights has no constraints other than those that assure other members of society the enjoyment of these same rights. These constraints can only be determined by law."

    In fact, the Constituent Assembly would produce a law that immediately contravened this article, with the 29 August 1789 law on the unlimited freedom of the sale and circulation of grain. In sanctioning property rights as natural, this law flatly denied reciprocity, for it led some to become richer and others poorer, in a dissymmetry that would only be aggravated by the lack of any controls being introduced.

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  • Start the Dismantling: Invitation To a Voyage—by Éric Hazan and Julien Coupat

    Originally published in Libération, this text by Éric Hazan and Julien Coupat is a castigation of the existing order and a call to mobilise against 'the world of lies'; the bureaucracies, parliaments, and courts, ahead of the 2017 French election.

    No reason to endure a year and a half of electoral campaigning, which we already know will culminate in a blackmail of democracy. We have a year and a half to form a human network sufficiently rich and self-assured to render the prevailing stupidity obscene, to make derisory the idea that slipping a voting paper into a ballot box could be a meaningful gesture – and a political gesture at that.


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  • "Citoyennes et citoyens!" Kristin Ross on the political vocabulary of 1789 and 1871

    The reverberations of the events of the French Revolution travelled far and wide, reemerging in some of the most unexpected places. Yet, one of the least explored aspects of its influence is in the new political vocabulary engendered by the events of 1789. In this extract from Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune, Kristin Ross analyses the emergence of the popular reunions of the revolutionaries of 1848 in the years preceding the start of the Paris Commune and the reactivation of the language of the citoyen. In doing so, Ross brings to light the subtle process of intwinement evident across the diverse events that make up the great revolutionary century in French history that the events of the French Revolution of 1789 inaugurated.


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