Fear, Violence, and the Reign of Terror

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...