Monday, 18 July 2016

The tumbrils, the tumbrils - The Revolution in the Revolution

Last Thursday was Bastille Day, le quatorze juillet, the anniversary of the storming by an angry crowd of the Bastille prison fortress in 1789, and one of the landmark dates of the Great Revolution.  I did not blog on that day, partly because in Nice a peaceful crowd watching a fireworks display was attacked by a man driving a truck, who scythed his way along the Promenade des Anglais, killing 84 people and injuring 200.  This assault has been 'claimed' by ISIS, though the exact character of the assailant, and his mental state, so far as they are ascertainable to us yet, suggest someone in great mental and psychological distress and disorder rather than a focused ideologue.  This has not stopped George Hook and other would-be armchair warriors in the defence of 'our values', and 'our civilization' abusing the platform of the media to declare that 'we' are fighting a 'war' against 'Islam', and, briefly tearing their eyes away from Victor comic and the collected speeches of Churchill, to mispronounce the names of the hapless President of the Republic and of the French national anthem, and to berate 'liberals' who cannot recognise the reality of struggle today.

The real Revolution, about which such fools know almost nothing beyond sentimental Dickensian clich├ęs, was much more interesting.  And indeed, it must be noted that by a sweet irony of history, the Bastille was by the time of its capture empty of all but seven of its prisoners.  Most notably, the Marquis de Sade had been removed from the prison only ten days earlier - a writer in whose work the Enlightenment is both exemplified and subverted (as Adorno and Horkheimer realised in their great critique of the instrumentalisation of reason).  That proximity of Sade should make us think carefully about the Revolution, and about the invocation of liberty, equality and fraternity now in reaction to attacks such as that at Nice.   The fact is that the Revolution is too great to contain in simplistic pseudo-historical maxims, and any unreflective mobilization of its legacies is the prerogative of dunces.

Nowhere is this more the case than in France itself, where interpretation of the Revolution has been a touchstone of intellectual and political life from Michelet to Furet.  The fact is that the modern historiographic orthodoxy in France about the 1789-1804 period has been anti-republican and counter-revolutionary since at least the 1970s.  But a few beacons still shine for the radical reading of the Revolution.

Of these, none has given me greater pleasure in recent years than Eric Hazan, the Parisian publisher, urbanist, Marxist and historian, whose Invention of Paris sits in my bag every time I visit the city.  This wonderful book, steeped in the political, literary, planning and architectural history of Paris, is written with a mix of steel, erudition and grace worthy of some of his heroes - Balzac, Baudelaire, Benjamin - and it is one of those books that makes me smile in public for the sheer delight of reading.  More recently, Hazan has published a popular history of the Revolution, and a short history of the barricade as an insurrectionary technique.   Here he is - appropriately on the Jacobin website - on the necessity of the Revolution.

Yes, the French Revolution Was Necessary


And here is Jonah Walters, giving a useful sketch of the Revolution through a series of questions:

A Guide to the French Revolution

 

Many of the greatest intellectuals and writers of Europe were moved by and admired the Revolution.  Not only Wordsworth and Coleridge, Hazlitt and  Paine, Tone and Drennan, but also Kant and Hegel.  Those who think of the latter only as the theoretical laureate of the Prussian state need to re-examine some of his earlier work, the Jena lectures of 1805-1806.  

Hegel on Bastille Day

 

Conor

 

 

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