Jacobin Robespierre Festival of the Supreme Being

Albert Mathiez on Robespierre and the cult of the Supreme Being

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Jacobin
recently published an article by Harrison Fluss about the Robespierrist Cult of the Supreme Being, instituted 1794. An okay article, overall, useful for sharing an obscure bit of revolutionary history (if for no other reason). The piece is marred by several historical inaccuracies and theoretical assumptions, which I address in a piece that is forthcoming on a couple of websites. Bhaskar Sunkara, editor of Jacobin, informed me that Fluss’ essay was a bit of a departure from the stuff they usually publish, so they weren’t planning on running a response.

In any case, one of the main historiographical controversies I touch on toward the end of my response is the dispute between François-Alphonse Aulard and his former pupil Albert Mathiez. Both men were partisans of the French Revolution, defenders of its legacy, but where the former was more of an historian of the popular movement (an historian “from below,” as they say) the latter was more an historian of the revolutionary government (an historian “from above”). Mathiez is a bit blinded, at times, by his unwavering devotion to Robespierre, but he is right that Aulard unfairly adopts some of the Thermidorian rhetoric regarding the Incorruptible’s private ambitions to dictatorship, etc. He never provides an adequate response to Aulard’s central contention, however, that Robespierre counterposed his own Cult of the Supreme Being to the Cult of Reason proposed by Hébert. Nevertheless Mathiez raises a number of pertinent points here, in his usual lively polemical style.

Evaluations, overviews, and synopses of this crucial conflict of interpretations between Mathiez and Aulard are almost ubiquitous in the literature on this subject. Ferenc Fehér, Arno Mayer, R.R. Palmer, and Albert Soboul all dedicate several pages to an assessment of the debate. So I was somewhat flabbergasted to see it wasn’t mentioned at all by Fluss in his article. It is not a minor omission, especially if it concerns Robespierre and the Hébertists. The scholars Fluss cites instead are Lewis Feuer and Nick Nesbitt. While Feuer’s book on Spinoza and the Rise of Liberalism is an otherwise excellent text, he’s mistaken to see a Spinozist influence in Robespierre’s doctrine of the Supreme Being. Robespierre insisted on the immortality of the soul, something Spinoza explicitly denied. Feuer admits as much: “Spinoza…held to a view which was tantamount to a denial of personal immortality.” Indeed, this was ostensibly the reason he was excommunicated from Amsterdam’s Jewish quarter in 1656. Nesbitt, whose book Caribbean Critique I have read (despite Fluss’ allegations to the contrary) and whose name Fluss seems unable to spell (“Nisbett”), nowhere argues that Spinoza was a source of the civic religion proposed by Rousseau and actualized, albeit briefly, by Robespierre. Paul Vernière is the classical source of this line of inquiry. Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy clearly would have been a more direct influence on Rousseau, who Robespierre took this idea from, particularly the chapters dealing with Roman religion. It surprises me that Fluss would be so enthusiastic about Robespierre’s Supreme Being, in any case, seeing as his philosophical master Hegel referred to it derisively in the Phenomenology (§586) as “the exhalation of a stale gas, of the vacuous l’Être Suprême.”

Anyway, Mathiez is an interesting character, a self-styled Jacobin and Robespierrist who, despite his chauvinist support of France during World War I, later sympathized with the Bolsheviks in Russia. There’s a lot of language praising the Jacobins’ patriotism, their love of Fatherland, etc. Below are some images of the Festival of the Supreme Being from the period, followed by the text. You can enlarge them and scroll through by clicking on them. Enjoy!

Robespierre and the cult
of the Supreme Being

Albert Mathiez
Annales révolutionnaires
April-June 1910
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The figure of Robespierre has been so misrepresented during the last twenty years, even by republican historians, that to talk of the Incorruptible’s religious ideas nowadays may seem a rash undertaking.

Robespierre, it is proclaimed, was a narrow intelligence, a man of the ancien régime, a coldly ambitious nature who desired to reign over France by imposing upon the country, through the Terror, a counterfeit Catholicism, a deism glorified into a religion of State.

I cannot hope to study here the whole religious policy of Robespierre backed up by the documents and proofs.

It must suffice to choose one example; to examine precisely what part was played by Robespierre in the establishment of the Cult of the Supreme Being: especially since this is the usual butt of all his detractors.

What do the republican historians hostile to Robespierre say? They contrast the Cult of the Supreme Being with the Cult of Reason. The Cult of Reason, which they praise unreservedly, was, according to them, the Hébertist party’s own creation. It was, they say, a pantheistic or even atheistic cult, a means of intellectual emancipation. The Cult of the Supreme Being, on the contrary, they allege to have been invented by Robespierre, in all its details, for the satisfaction of his unbridled ambitions and mystical passions. It was, they say, an attempt at political enslavement and intellectual reaction.

Now, however generally accepted this contrast between the two revolutionary cults may be, it is nonetheless false. Far from having been the invention of a few men, Chaumette, Fouché, Hébert, and Cloots, or even of a party, the Cult of Reason was merely the culminating point in a series of civic festivals, the origin of which goes back to the great Feast of the Federation of July 14, 1790.1 The Festival of Reason resembled all the preceding ones. The same odes were sung, the same processions went through their evolutions, the same patriotic emotion stirred men’s hearts at the sight of the same republican symbols. The new feature of the 20th Brumaire, Year II, the day on which the Commune and the Convention glorified Reason in Notre-Dame de Paris, was not even the place chosen for the ceremony — a cathedral — for churches had already, witnessed similar scenes beneath their vaulted roofs. The new feature was this: that the fall of constitutional Catholicism, the secularization of the churches, and the abdication of the priests coincided with this festival.

But even the overthrow of the constitutional Church cannot be ascribed to the Hébertist party alone, for the Girondins themselves, such as Pierre Manuel, Guadet, and Vergniaud, had worked for it energetically since the days of the Legislative Assembly.

Nor was the solemn abdication of the Archbishop of Paris, Gobel, which gave an impulse to the dechristianizing movement, exclusively the work of the Hébertists; for it arose from the initiative of Pereira, Proli, and their friends, the party of the Enragés [extremists] which had its center in the people’s societies in the sections, and caused the Commune and Convention a moment’s alarm; and the initiative of the people’s societies was seconded by some notoriously moderate men, such as Thuriot, Basire, and Chabot,2 The truth is that the Hébertists, Chaumette, Cloots, and Hébert were merely falling into line with the obscure patriots of the sections, the nameless crowd of sans-culottes in the outlying parts of Paris. Continue reading

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Lenin and David Bowie

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David Bowie has died. In tribute, I’m posting some portions of the second chapter of Agata Pyzik’s excellent book Poor but Sexy, which I reviewed for the Los Angeles Review of Books about a year ago. You should definitely pick it up if you haven’t already. To complement it, I’m including some photos of Bowie in Moscow and around the Eastern Bloc.

A word about Bowie’s flirtation with fascist symbolism during the 1970s: Quite clearly it was a deliberate aesthetic provocation meant to shock the public, part of his Thin White Duke persona. Same goes with that Playboy interview: he was coked out of his mind, responding to decades of British postwar malaise. Bowie also made use of communist, East European, and avant-garde symbolism around this time. Not trying to make excuses for the guy, just pointing out that this part of rock’n’roll’s broader obsession with totalitarianism during this period.

Either way, don’t expect sound politics from celebrities. Lemmy also liked to collect fascoid paraphernalia, as many have pointed out. He was a great musician and artist all the same. Regarding Bowie’s sexual improprieties, allegedly sleeping with Lori Maddox when she was seventeen and he was in his early twenties (as part of a ménage à trois with another man), again I am not interested in his private life. Picasso slept with younger women in Paris, but this hardly makes him less of a painter. Caravaggio murdered a couple people in cold blood, and he is similarly undiminished.

Surely no one will fault us for mourning Bowie’s death simply because he did not make great contributions to Marxist theory.

Ashes and brocade

Berlinism, Bowie, post punk,
new romantics and pop culture
during the second Cold War
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Had to get the train
from Potsdamer Platz
You never knew that I could do that
Just walking the dead
a man lost in time
Twenty thousand people cross Bösebrücke
fingers are crossed just in case
where are we now?

— David Bowie, “Where
Are We Now?” (2013)

I could make a transformation
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Is there concrete all around or is it in my head?

— David Bowie, “All
the Young Dudes”

The 1970s were the era of defeat. As the sixties were extremely intense in terms of political and social change, from the early seventies the flux went steady. David Bowie, who debuted in the late sixties, marked this change when he invented Ziggy Stardust in 1972: no more real heroes, from now on the most desirable thing was to be fabricated. What is genuine, authentic, is boring. The only hero that really matters, is pure artifice, cut out from the comic books, movies and dressed in everything that’s glamorous. Bowie more than anyone contributed to the cherishing of artifice in pop music, realizing the idea of a “hero for a day,” only following the course mass culture had been taking for decades. Was he conscious of that? Some of his lyrics of the era mark the mourning of the depoliticization of his generation: in the lyrics to the song “Star,” he mentions “Bevan (who) tried to change the nation,” and posing himself instead as someone who “could make a transformation as a rock & roll star.” Facing the “growing nihilism of his generation, he still believes that as a star of artifice, he can carry on their political task. “All the Young Dudes,” a song he wrote for Mott the Hoople in ’72, reeks of the youth’s disappointment and disillusionment, forming a kind of “solidarity of the losers” anthem. Bowie, always too erratic to make any firm political commitment, was rather in love with various dubious figures, “cracked actors,” (the inspiration for Ziggy was a forgotten singer who was believed to be a combination of god and an alien), necromantics like Aleister Crowley, Kenneth Anger’s satanism, Fascist dictators. He was, nevertheless, obsessed with certain elements of modernity. He was driven to German culture, especially the Weimar period, expressionism, Neue Sachlichkeit, theater, Brecht. His first break-through hit concerned a man lost in space, after all, and the space age gets a strongly melancholic treatment from Bowie, as his character Major Tom is rather terrified by the silence of space. Another obsession, as we will see, was Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Bowie’s fixation with “totalitarianism” applied to both sides. At one point he planned to stage an adaptation of the Soviet-Czech comic book Octobriana, about a socialist she-devil super-heroine — a samizdat publication, that was circulated between creators only through the post. Bowie could only have learned about it from its 1971 American edition. On the other side, his dalliance with the far right was something more than just the famous Sieg Heil he made to fans in 1976 at Victoria Station. It’s not an accident pop bands are very rarely left-wing, and Bowie’s reaction to the economic crisis of the seventies was to imagine becoming a right wing politician who’ll “sort things out.” “I believe strongly in Fascism,” Bowie said; “the only way we can speed up the sort of liberalism that’s hanging foul in the air is to speed up the progress of a right wing tyranny. People have responded always more efficiently under a regimental leadership.” Bowie recognized, if only half-consciously, the appeal and meaning of the pop idol as a dictator. In Peter Watkins’ film from some years earlier, 1967’s Privilege, a young, cherubic, mega-popular singer is hired by the fascistic authorities, who use his popularity to ensure their control over the masses, in a truly Orwellesque, Big Brother-like take on the police state (which here has much more to do with Nazi Germany than communist states). Yet Watkins’ scared, weakened, traumatized singer, terrified of the masses, couldn’t have been further from Bowie, who relished in fame.

So Bowie’s fascination with Germany and Berlin was only partly expressionism – much of it was also quite simply, fascism. He became a chief Schwarzkarakter for Rock against Racism, whose magazine pictured him next to Enoch Powell and Hitler. The press deemed his Thin White Duke look “more Nazi than Futurist (sic)’. He also caught the attention and sympathy of the National Front, who in an article called “White European Dance Music,” said that “Perhaps the anticommunist backlash and the aspirations towards heroism by the futurist movement, has much to do with the imagery employed by the big daddy of futurism, David Bowie. After all, it was Bowie who horrified the establishment in mid seventies with his favorable comments on the NF, and Bowie who might have started an “anti-communist” music tradition which we now see flourishing amidst the New Wave of futurist bands. Who might the NF’s publicist have meant as the “futurist movement”? It was the growing synthpop and New Romanticism that was emerging from the post-punk bands. Punk by itself might have evoked a resistance towards the establishment, but by then it was dissolving. Although we are used to seeing industrial/synthpop/postpunk as ruthless modernists, the bands were actually rarely openly left wing. The political message, if any, was rather vague. Bands dwelling on the space age came often from dispossessed areas, which they then made topics for their music, but the result didn’t have to be politically sound. It was this later, new romantic period that brought Bowie to the left, with the stern words about “fascists” on Scary Monsters.

But even if we treat those remarks as just the drugged out delirium of a coked-up degenerate, which they were, it can’t be denied they had an influence on popular music. If you take the whole fascination with the Germanic in post punk bands, like Siouxsie and the Banshees or, omen omen, Joy Division, the twisted outpourings of their leaders weren’t just simply teasing their parents. They were flirting with the outrageous (Siouxsie), against the war generation, or they were openly right wing, like Ian Curtis. They had little to do with the struggles of Baader-Meinhof that ended tragically few years back. Curtis was confusing his obsession with Hitlerism with another obsession with a concentration camp prisoners (Stephen Morris has said in an interview that Joy Division were supposed to look like Nazi camp victims) or wider, the idea of the underdog, which tapped into their Bowieesque Eastern Bloc fantasies, like that of “Warszawa,” an eternally concrete, sinister city. Yet Bowie’s image of contemporary Berlin must’ve been seriously twisted, if he thought he could find shelter there with another drug addict, Iggy Pop, in a place that had already become one of the most narcotics-dependent places on earth. West Germany and West Berlin had for years been a territory of political dysphoria. The New Left’s legacy was melting. In a context of pseudo-denazification, militancy reached its peak around 1968 and the police shooting of Benno Ohnesorg. By 1976, when Bowie moved to Berlin, it had become the armed terrorism of RAF, the Red Army Faction. Continue reading

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Open-source Marxism 2016: Fresh batch of “pirate scab” PDFs

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Happy New Year from the Charnel-House.

2015 was a fairly shit year. Lemmy died, and yet another Star Wars movie came out, so right off the bat you know it’s awful. Add to that the terror attacks in Paris, Beirut, Colorado, California, throughout Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, the list goes on and on. Plus rising xenophobia and outright racism in Europe and the United States, where cops seem to be shooting unarmed black kids on a weekly basis.

I guess Stephen Curry’s MVP season, culminating in a Finals victory over Lebron, mitigated things somewhat, made the year a little more worthwhile. Only somewhat, though.

We are insufficiently gripped by the terror of existence.

Regardless, start the year off right with some high-quality “pirate scab versions” of commie e-books and PDFs. First of all, more or less all of the books published in the Historical Materialism series. But also 365 different author folders, one for each day of 2016. It seems that butthurt from one of the prime movers at Verso and HM has already commenced, and so he’s issued a middle school “him or me” ultimatum.

Budgen butthurt

Of course, I don’t begrudge anyone who would defriend me or badmouth me for careerist reasons, because the sacred principles of #getpaid and #mansgottaeat override everything. You can’t be blamed the guy acts like a teenager, or that he can only tolerate suck-ups and sycophants. Just enjoy the free books. Anyway, most of these are in English, but the Hero of Labor who uploaded these tells me other languages could be provided as well. Also included are some worthwhile reactionaries like Michels, Pareto, and de Maistre, and some liberal thinkers from the era of bourgeois revolutions.

Note: If you’re not familiar with MEGA, the way downloads work can be kind of confusing. When you click on a given file, it goes to “transfers,” which then usually saves to your desktop. But there should be a gear in the lower left hand side which allows you to specify where everything is saved. Continue reading