Fear, Violence, and the Reign of Terror

La Guillotine en 1793 by H. Fleischmann (1908). Wikimedia Commons.

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

by Sophie Wahnich, trans. David Fernbach
Verso Books, 2012, 144 pp.

If more people knew more about the French Revolution, their views could serve as a measure of their politics—as, say, views of the Russian Revolution once did. The history of the French Revolution is difficult to separate out from its impact on political theory and on the fault lines between Left and Right. Political thinkers such as Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, G.W.F. Hegel, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Karl Marx were keen interpreters of the Revolution’s historical significance. The account each one chose to embrace indicated where he or she stood on the political spectrum. For a time, Marx was the triumphant interpreter, and preeminent historians of the Revolution, figures such as Georges Lefebvre and Albert Soboul, relied on a Marxist class analysis in order to explain the course of events. The Revolution secured a central place in the Left’s heritage.

The Marxist approach lost its dominance in 1978 with the publication of François Furet’s Interpreting the French Revolution. Although others before him had challenged the Marxist account (notably George Taylor and Alfred Cobban), Furet succeeded in shifting the discourse on the Revolution away from class and material conditions toward the discussion of political ideas and languages. Furet’s achievement was not only to define a new research agenda for the Revolution. By overturning the Marxist interpretation, with its emphasis on the rise and politicization of the bourgeoisie, Furet deprived many leftists of what had been for them the source and origin of modern radical politics. In turn, if the Revolution could no longer be justified by reference to the emancipatory aspirations of the bourgeoisie (and the nascent proletariat), critical attention could be drawn to the Reign of Terror. Furet’s new reading of the Revolution was well timed, occurring just as French intellectuals became increasingly aware of, and critical of, the Russian Revolution’s culmination in Stalinism. Now the French Revolution could be reinterpreted as the founding event of left-wing totalitarianism. It is against this backdrop that French historian Sophie Wahnich’s In Defence of the Terror: Liberty or Death in the French Revolution enters into the politicized debate over the Revolution’s legacy.

Despite its provocative title and enthusiastic foreword by Slavoj Žižek (“this is the book we were waiting for”), the book is hardly a defense of the Terror. The French title for its 2003 publication, La liberté ou la mort: Essai sur la Terreur et le terrorisme, does not promise to vindicate the Terror, and nothing in Wahnich’s account suggests that she intended the book to do so. Nevertheless, Wahnich is explicit in her attempt to offer an account of the Terror...

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.