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Home Uncategorized There will be blood

There will be blood

Hugh Gough
Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship, and Authenticity in the French Revolution, by Marisa Linton, Oxford University Press, 323 pages, £65, ISBN: 978-0199576302 The dilemma of how to interpret the terror lies at the heart of the French Revolution. Why did a revolution that abolished social privilege and set up a liberal parliamentary monarchy decline so rapidly into a republican dictatorship that guillotined not only its enemies but its former friends? It is a conundrum that haunted contemporaries and polarised opinion between conservatives who, like Edmund Burke, saw terror as the inevitable result of an attempt to uproot tradition and impose abstract reason onto human affairs, and revolutionaries who defended terror as a contingent and necessary event prompted by the strains of civil and external war. Terror as a method of governing was not invented by the French revolution. It had been used by governing elites for centuries before 1789, to punish sedition and coerce subjects at all levels into submission. It was used by Christian churches through torture, mutilation and the burning of alleged heretics from the late middle ages onwards. Monarchs and rulers in the early modern period also deployed it to impose their authority over dissidents and criminals, staging executions featuring spectacular shows of cruelty. Witches, heretics and homosexuals were burnt; thieves hanged till they choked to death; highwaymen smashed on the wheel and rebels and regicides either hanged, drawn and quartered or pulled apart. Robert-François Damiens was the last victim of the latter punishments, executed for his assault on Louis XV in 1757 in scenes vividly described by Michel Foucault in the opening pages of his classic work Discipline and Punish. These elaborate ceremonies of physical torture and mutilation were carried out in front of vast crowds of men, women and children, who lapped up their theatrical violence. The difference between old regime terror and the terror of the French revolution lay in its context. As Linton points out in this fascinating study, the development of the terrorist mentality among the Jacobin elite during the revolution was the first example of terror being used to defend explicitly democratic values. The guillotine fell repeatedly in the name of liberty and equality, just as subsequent terrors of the twentieth century were unleashed by revolutionary regimes in the name of the people and “progress” from the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, through Stalin’s gulag, to Mao’s China and the killing fields of Cambodia….

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