Classical revolutionary historiography and revisionist endeavors

Albert Soboul
La Pensée
Fall 1974

The French Revolution has often been presented as the crowning achievement of the century of the Enlightenment and thus essentially as an ideological act.1 It still appears as such in the work of François-Alphonse Aulard.2 Jean Jaurès was the first who wanted to see in it a social phenomenon and thus of economic origin.3 Not that Jaurès had denied any importance to the philosophical movement. “Just as it would be vain and false,” he writes in the introduction to his Socialist History of the French Revolution, “to deny the dependence of thought and even dreams on the economic system and the concrete forms of production, so it would be puerile and crude to summarily explain the movement of human thought solely by the evolution of economic forms.” It is not solely by the force of things that the Revolution was accomplished; it is also “by the force of men, by the energy of consciousness and will.” It is nevertheless true, and Jaurès notes it vigorously, that the Revolution itself was the result of a long economic and social evolution that made the bourgeoisie master of power and the economy. The historiography of the French Revolution has remained at that point: Albert Mathiez reedited the work of Jaurès in 1922; Georges Lefebvre acknowledged Jaurès as his master.4

Actually, the Jaurès interpretation is not new. From the period of the Restoration, historians of the liberal school, even if they were hardly interested in the economic origins of the social movement, had strongly emphasized one of the essential characteristics of our national history: the appearance, growth and final triumph of the bourgeoisie; between the people and the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie had slowly created the framework and clarified the ideas of a new society of which 1789 was the consecration. Such is Guizot’s essential idea in his course on The History of Civilization in France.5 Such was also the conviction of both Tocqueville6 and Taine.7

From the period of the Revolution, however, Barnave had pushed the social analysis further. In his Introduction to the French Revolution, written in 1792, after having posited the principle that property influences institutions, Barnave states that the institutions created by the landed aristocracy impeded and slowed the arrival of a new era. “Once the arts and commerce succeeded in penetrating the people and created a new means to wealth to aid the laboring class, all was ready for a revolution in political laws: a new distribution of wealth produced a new distribution of power.”8 It is to this line of thought that the 1847 Communist Manifesto of Karl Marx, and then the first volume of Capital in 1867, subscribe. Thus the social interpretation of the French Revolution plunges deeply into our historical past. From the beginning, this interpretation alone, through its scholarly demands and critical reflection, established itself as truly scientific: compare the work of Guizot — or even that of Thiers — always concerned with documents, even if they were official ones, to that of Lacretelle.9 This interpretation was gradually perfected, in order to realize the complexity of the Revolution. Philippe Sagnac, in the last volume of The History of France published under the direction of Ernest Lavisse, and even more strongly Albert Mathiez, have clarified what was in the eighteenth century the aristocratic reaction that culminated in 1787-1788 in the nobiliary revolt.10 Yet it is not enough to distinguish between the revolt of the aristocracy and the revolution of the Third Estate. First Jaurès and then Mathiez after him have insisted on the rapid disintegration of the latter.

Antagonisms were quickly manifested between the various bourgeois categories and between the bourgeoisie and the popular masses, accounting for the complexity of revolutionary history and the progression of its various stages. Following in the same spirit with his study of the peasant masses, Lefebvre demonstrated the existence, in the general framework of the Revolution, of a peasant current possessing autonomy and specificity in its origins, procedures, crises and tendencies. This same approach has been applied by several of his students to the study of the popular urban masses.11

Thus the social interpretation of the French Revolution was gradually perfected through a long development, secular to say the least. By its constant recourse to scholarly research (“Without scholarship there is no history,” Lefebvre repeated), by its critical spirit, by its efforts at theoretical reflection, by its global vision of the Revolution, it alone merits to be considered truly scientific.

This deepening of the social interpretation of the Revolution has progressed to the rhythm of history itself. It would be banal to recall here that the vision of history is shaded or modified by each generation of historians: it is under the weight of lived experiences and real history that history is also written. The history of the French Revolution could not escape this law. For almost two centuries, each generation in its turn, through its hopes and dreams, studied the Revolution, matrix of our history, either to exalt it or reject it. Not without results. The movement of history has gradually revealed to each generation new aspects, more and more numerous factors and a more and more complex interaction. Thus new meanings, up to then masked by the very complexity of the phenomenon, have been brought to light. It is significant that it was in Kiev, in that Ukraine where the peasant had just been freed from serfdom, but without gaining property, that Loutchisky became that first to be attracted to the study of the agrarian question during the French Revolution; in 1897, he published Small Property in France before the Revolution and the Sale of National Lands. It is significant that it was during the First World War that Mathiez understood the economic necessities for conducting a great national war and the requirement of a controlled economy; he then wrote the studies that formed, in 1927, The High Cost of Living and the Social Movement during the Terror.

Thus the social interpretation of the French Revolution progressed at the same rhythm as history. And if, in the middle of our century, the attention of its historians is focused on the popular urban masses, wouldn’t it be because the world has entered an era of mass movements? These movements don’t exist without frightening the ruling classes; this leads, in the opposite direction, to those vain efforts to deny the French Revolution its historical reality or its social and national specificity, a vain precedent. Consequently, a revisionist line confronts the classical social interpretation. Thinking to discredit it, certain revisionists have baptized the classical interpretation “Jacobin historiography” of the Revolution, a description we do not challenge, understanding by that, as Lefebvre has taught us, the understanding and faithfulness to the cause of the people, but without the historian abandoning any of the essential requirements of the scholarly method and critical spirit. Let us say more precisely, a progressive tradition of revolutionary historiography, from Jules Michelet to Lefebvre, passing through Jaurès, Aulard, and Mathiez, and whatever may have been the shades of difference and divergences among these men — the only tradition which, in its principled progression, has been and remains scientific. Continue reading

Religion and revolution: Robespierre’s cult of the Supreme Being

A response to
Harrison Fluss

Originally published by the
Communist League Tampa

In a recent article written for Jacobin, Harrison Fluss revisits the civic religion of the Supreme Being enshrined by Maximilien Robespierre 18 Floréal Year II of the Republic (7 May 1794). Tracing its conceptual origins back to the philosophical discourses of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and, somewhat less plausibly, the metaphysical system of Baruch Spinoza, the author argues this bygone historical moment still has much to teach the present. He suggests that Spinoza, Rousseau, and Robespierre “provide a solution for the kind of relationship between church and state needed not only for an emancipatory movement, but for the emancipated society of the future.”

Several things are already implied by this statement. First, religious institutions — i.e., the church — will by no means be done away with in the future society Fluss envisions. No less scandalously, at least from a Marxist perspective, secular institutions — i.e., the state — will also continue to exist. Both conclusions flow from the assertion that a relationship between church and state will always be necessary, since both must still be around in order for them to relate. Even after the material conditions which necessitate spiritual and temporal power have been superseded, in other words, Fluss seems to believe they will persist in every time and in every clime. Religio perennis lurks behind all the superficial changes in mythology over the centuries, expressing an immutable desire. Likewise the need for a repressive apparatus, the administrative machinery of government, never fully fades.

Whether or not this is actually the case, others have often held quite the opposite view of humanity’s prospects moving forward through history. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, for example, scolded their Hegelian colleague, Georg Daumer, for promoting a new pantheistic creed. “It is clear that with every great historical upheaval of social conditions the outlooks and ideas of men, and consequently their religious ideas, are revolutionized,” they wrote in their joint review of Daumer’s 1850 book Die Religion des Neuen Weltalters. “The difference between the present upheaval and all previous ones consists in the fact that man has at last figured out the secret of this process of historical upheaval and hence, instead of once again exalting this [process] in the rapturous form of a new religion, divests himself of all religion.” Decades later, Engels famously maintained that the proletariat, in the course of its transition to socialism, eventually “abolishes itself as proletariat, abolishes all class distinctions and class antagonisms, and abolishes the state as state.” After a certain point, the state simply dies off or withers away [stirbt ab].

For Marx and Engels, then, a society in which the state endures — much less the church — cannot be called emancipated.

религия-яд береги ребят

Perhaps this is too literal, though, reading too much into too little. Here is not the place for biblical exegesis, at any rate, searching for answers in “sacred” texts. Besides, by focusing on abstruse theoretical matters like the withering away [Absterben] of church and state, one avoids the eminently practical issue Fluss was trying to address. Over and above such heady speculations, then, the historical analogy he offers in his article may be scrutinized to see if it is apt. Can Robespierre’s Cult of the Supreme Being truly serve as a model for resolving the antinomy of church and state today? Continue reading

Albert Mathiez on Robespierre and the cult of the Supreme Being

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

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

The golden age of bourgeois portraiture, before the rise of photography

What follows is an assortment of extremely high-resolution portraits of famous figures gleaned from various sources around the web, along with a short text by the French photographer and media critic Gisèle Freund. Almost 175 portraits are included, featuring well-known philosophers, political economists, and revolutionaries such as Thomas Münzer, Stepan Razin, René Descartes, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, David Ricardo, G.W.F. Hegel, Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Toussaint Louverture, Maximilien Robespierre, Camille Desmoulins, Baruch Spinoza, Georges Danton, and numerous others who I’m forgetting. Included also, as mentioned, is an extract from Freund’s Photography and Society (1970), a book more than thirty years in the making.

Freund’s close friend and theoretical influence Walter Benjamin commented on an earlier draft of this chapter:

Study of the history of photography began about eight or ten years ago. We have a number of publications, mostly illustrated, on its infancy and its early masters. But only this most recent study has treated the subject in conjunction with the history of painting. Gisèle Freund’s study describes the rise of photography as conditioned by that of the bourgeoisie, successfully illustrating the causal connection by examining the history of the portrait. Starting from the expensive ivory miniature (the portrait technique most widely used under the ancien régime), the author describes the various procedures which contributed to making portrait production quicker and cheaper, and therefore more widespread, around 1780, sixty years before the invention of photography. Her description of the “physiognotrace” as an intermediate form between the portrait miniature and the photograph shows in exemplary fashion how technical factors can be made socially transparent. The author then explains how, with photography, technical development in art converged with the general technical standard of society, bringing the portrait within the means of wider bourgeois strata. She shows that the miniaturists were the first painters to fall victim to photography.

Besides Freund’s masterful study, I would also recommend Aby Warburg’s longish essay on “The Art of Portraiture and the Florentine Bourgeoisie” (1902). Less obviously Marxist than the remarks by Freund and Benjamin in this post — Warburg was a self-professed follower of Burckhardt — but quite complementary to them. Feel free to browse and enlarge any of the images below.


Precursors of the photographic portrait

Gisèle Freund
Photography &

The development of the photographic portrait corresponds to an important phase in the social development of Western Europe: the rise of the middle classes when for the first time, fairly large segments of the population attained political and economic power. To meet their resulting demand for goods, nearly everything had to be produced in greater quantities. The portrait was no exception: By having one’s portrait done an individual of the ascending classes could visually affirm his new social status both to himself and to the world at large. To meet the increased demand for portraits, the art became more and more mechanized. The photographic portrait was the final stage in this trend toward mechanization.

Around 1750 the nascent middle classes began pushing into areas that were formerly the sole domain of the aristocracy. For centuries the privilege of aristocratic circles, the portrait began to yield to democratization. Even before the French Revolution the bourgeoisie had already manifested its profound need for self-glorification, a need which provoked the development of new forms and techniques of portraiture. Photography, which entered the public domain in 1839, owes much of its popularity and rapid social development to the continuing vogue of the portrait. Continue reading

The death of Marat and the death of art

Jean-Paul Marat, the famous French revolutionary and member of the Club des Cordeliers, was assassinated by the Girondin sympathizer Charlotte Corday two hundred twenty-two years ago today. David’s rendering of Marat lying dead and bloodied in his bathtub, Corday’s concocted note still held in his left hand, is perhaps the most iconic political image of all time. On numerous occasions it has been parodied, satirized, and otherwise détourned (most notably in 1860, under Louis Bonaparte’s reactionary Second Empire, by the “patriotic” painter Paul Jacques Aimé Baudry).

An account of Marat’s death and subsequent canonization as a martyr of the Revolution appears below, taken from Arno Mayer’s The Furies (2000). This is then followed by several hilarious, more recent parodies of David’s painting. I’ve already stated on numerous occasions that art is, for all intents and purposes, dead. So it should come as no surprise that The Death of Marat itself would itself fall victim to the death of art. Enjoy.

jacques-louis david, mort de marat (1793)the-death-of-marat-1793-oil-on-canvas-joseph-roques

The death of Marat

Had it not been for the rising storm [of Terror], the assassination of Marat, on July 13, 1793, the eve of the fourth anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, most likely would have been an isolated and harmless bolt of political lightning. But with the turbulent weather, Marie-Anne-Charlotte de Corday d’Armont’s fatal deed touched off a political firestorm. In death even more than in life, Marat lent himself to being at once apotheosized and demonized — as the incarnation of good or evil, light or darkness, virtue or vice, purity or impurity.

Disenchanted with the Revolution, Charlotte Corday claimed that by killing Marat she meant to “avenge untold innocent victims” as well as “save thousands of lives…and prevent many other disasters.” When the judges, before sentencing her to death, asked whether she “thought she had slain all the Marats,” she replied that with “this one dead, all the others will be put in fear.”

Almost instantly Corday was both excoriated and extolled as the arch-avenger. One of the revolutionary papers reported that on hearing of Marat’s assassination, several women exclaimed that death by guillotine would be “too mild for such a heinous crime” and vowed to “cut up and devour the scoundrel who had deprived the people of their best friend.” After noting in Père Duchesne that to curse Corday was to “fire the people’s vengeance,” Hébert likewise insisted that to “fit the crime” the punishment would have to be “more terrible and degrading than death by guillotine.” As for Charlotte Corday, on being turned over to the Abbaye prison, she apparently feared “that the people would tear her limb from limb.” She did not breathe easier until she thought she stood fair to be “beheaded by the guillotine, which would be a gentle death.”

Charlotte_Corday Carlota_Corday_1889_by_Arturo_Michelena

There was, indeed, considerable apprehension that an overwrought crowd would once again invest the Abbaye prison, this time to touch off an uncontrollable massacre with the vindictive slaying of Marat’s assassin. At the Convention several deputies, worried that a popular “clamor for vengeance” would set off “a terrible explosion,” urged citizens to remain both calm and vigilant at the same time that they reassured them that they “would be avenged.” Likewise François Hanriot, the hardline commander of the capital’s national guard, simultaneously approved the cry for vengeance and stressed that “the best way to keep in check the aristocracy was to trust and support our courts of law.” Presently even the firebrand Hébert sought to calm the atmosphere, insisting that “the day of vengeance was not yet at hand” partly because Paris still needed to persuade the provinces that the capital was not “a city of cannibals.”

In the meantime, at the main Jacobin club there was a move to enshrine Marat, the martyr of liberty, in the Pantheon. But Robespierre objected, contending that by giving people a false sense of “redress,” such a spectacular homage would assuage their “thirst for vengeance.” On July 15 a delegation of the Society of the Men of August 10 came to the Convention to “demand that Marat be avenged” rather than given “the honors of the Pantheon,” not least because he was, in any case, assured of a “permanent Pantheon in everyone’s heart.”

By this time several bards of the Revolution were entrusted with planning a solemn funeral rite for Marat. It stands to reason that the iconoclastic intelligentsia, including the unbound artists of the new order, should have turned to celebrating and commemorating the Revolution’s major events and heroic leaders or martyrs. In this way they hoped to challenge and replace the resplendent public ceremonials of the ancien régime. Jacques-Louis David is emblematic of these self-conscious activist illuminati who came forward to assist in laying the foundations for a future full of promise. An early partisan of reform, he was radicalized by the force of circumstance. With time he became a fervent champion of the nascent republic and Jacobin patriotism. David was elected one of the capital’s deputies in the National Convention and eventually served on its Committee of General Security. He had a sympathetic understanding for Robespierre and Marat, with whom he consorted off and on.

David_Self_Portrait2013 04 27 Le serment du Jeu de Paume, le 20 juin 1789 - Jacques-Louis David - Carnavalet 2

David emerged, of course, as not only the peerless painter-artist of the Revolution but also its master metteur en scène. Characteristically he idealized and ideologized one of the Revolution’s grand founding events in The Oath of the Tennis Court, his first and arguably one of his most compelling historical paintings, started in mid-1790. No less exemplary, David was the guiding spirit of the ceremonial transfer of Voltaire’s ashes to the Pantheon in June 1791. This sober and grandiose funeral procession, partly mimetic of yesterday’s religious prototype and featuring Greco-Roman imagery, was staged to symbolize and herald “the victory of reason over superstition, philosophy over theology, justice over tyranny, tolerance over fanaticism.” David was responsible for the overall “organization” and “decoration” of this and several later public rites, while François Gossec and Marie-Joseph Chénier provided, respectively, the music and lyrics.

David does not seem to have had a hand in conceiving and staging the cavalry of Louis XVI — procession, execution, burial — on January 21, 1793, which was designed to consummate the king’s profanation as a symbol of monarchy while diligently precluding his living on as a martyr. Indeed, David’s calling and vision was to construct, represent, and memorialize heroes, not anti-heroes; martyrs, not demons. Nowhere was his revolutionary commitment more intensely tested and expressed than in his orchestration of the funeral of Jean-Paul Marat and his martyr painting of this uncommon revolutionary. A few months earlier David had experimented with new techniques of funeral pageantry and iconography in rendering honor to Michel Lepeletier de Saint-Fargeau. As deputy from Yonne, this aristocrat had voted the death penalty for Louis XVI. In revenge for this apostasy, Lepeletier was mortally stabbed by a former royal bodyguard. David arranged for his semi-nude corpse, with its fatal wound unhidden, to lie in state on the Place Vendôme preceding a memorial service on the floor of the Convention. Shortly thereafter David captured the atmosphere and message of the ceremony in his painted exaltation of Lepeletier. In every respect, Lepeletier’s apotheosis prefigured Marat’s. Continue reading

1776 — revolution or counterrevolution?

Recent challenges to
the classical narrative


Anti-revisionist revisionism

Predictably, with July 4th fast approaching, a flurry of interviews and articles attacking the revolutionary credentials of the American War of Independence have come out over the last couple days. First and foremost, there’s the interview Amy Goodman and Juan González conducted with the Stalinist historian Gerald Horne on his new book The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America. (Horne’s politics are more or less identical to those held by the CP-USA, that grand old bastion of anti-revisionist orthodoxy. While he voiced a few tepid criticisms of Stalin’s “excesses” in his biography of W.E.B. Dubois, Horne still saw fit to draw a moral equivalence between the Soviet premier and the American revolutionaries in a letter to the editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Stalin was no worse than the Founding Fathers.” I’m no vulgar Stalinophobe. Still, I find the comparison ridiculous.)

One of the more choice quotes from this interview, though obviated by the title of his latest release, runs as follows:

July 4th, 1776, in many ways, represents a counterrevolution. That is to say that what helped to prompt July 4th, 1776, was the perception amongst European settlers on the North American mainland that London was moving rapidly towards abolition. This perception was prompted by Somerset’s case, a case decided in London in June 1772 which seemed to suggest that abolition, which not only was going to be ratified in London itself, was going to cross the Atlantic and basically sweep through the mainland, thereby jeopardizing numerous fortunes, not only based upon slavery, but the slave trade.

Nothing really too new about this, to be honest. Arguments of this sort have been presented before, even half-jokingly caricatured, by intellectuals like Richard Seymour, who once referred to the American Revolution as “a preemptive strike against liberty.” If so many seem to hold this view, though, and certain facts seem to support it, what’s wrong with their argument?

Well, for starters, the British didn’t end up abolishing slavery outside of the colonial metropole, permitting its continuation in the colonies well into the nineteenth century. Whether or not the main impetus behind the revolt of American patriotts against the crown was based on a (mis)perception that emancipation was just around the corner is immaterial. Jefferson, Hamilton, and Jay advanced a program of radical republicanism that not only did away with monarchical rule over the thirteen colonies, but helped to usher in the French Revolution across the Atlantic. Both materially and ideologically, it so happens: materially by bankrupting the Ancien Régime  over in France, and ideologically by providing Thomas Paine’s blueprint on The Rights of Man. France also vacillated on the question of hereditary rule, incidentally, much as the United States offered Washington the throne in the 1780s. Later, the Jacobins would draw upon another revolutionary tradition, that of the England of 1648, to find precedent for their own regicide.

Ever since the New Left began its “long march through the institutions” decades ago, such counter-narratives have become commonplace within contemporary historiography. Domenico Losurdo’s long and scathing Marxist critique of liberal thought in Liberalism: A Counter-History (2011), typifies this approach. In an interview I conducted with him a couple years ago, Losurdo stated that “the American Revolution was, in reality, a ‘counter-revolution’…” “[I]f we consider the case of the natives or the blacks,” he continued, “their conditions became worse after the American Revolution. Of course conditions in the white community became much better. But…numerous U.S. historians…consider the American Revolution a counter-revolution.” Gerald Horne is certainly prominent among them.

Classical Marxism and the bourgeois revolutions

Such a dismissive attitude toward the bourgeois revolutions of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries will no doubt come as a surprise to those who have any acquaintance with Marx’s high opinion of the Dutch Revolt of 1572, the English Civil War of 1648, the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, the American War of Independence of 1776, and the Great French Revolution of 1789. As Marx himself wrote to Abraham Lincoln on behalf of the First International in 1864, “[t]he workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. “

Veen01 1647 Civil War painting  Basing House

This perspective was hardly limited to Marx, either. Classical Marxism in general smiled with admiration at the history of bourgeois revolutionary struggles. Lenin, for example, asserted in his “Letter to the American Workers” that “[t]he American people…set the world an example in waging a revolutionary war against feudal slavery.”

He continued:

The history of modern, civilized America opened with one of those great, really liberating, really revolutionary wars of which there have been so few compared to the vast number of wars of conquest which, like the present imperialist war, were caused by squabbles among kings, landowners, or capitalists over the division of usurped lands or ill-gotten gains. That was the war the American people waged against the British robbers who oppressed America and held her in colonial slavery, in the same way as these “civilized” bloodsuckers are still oppressing and holding in colonial slavery hundreds of millions of people in India, Egypt, and all parts of the world.

Today, however, accounts like this are regularly written off as teleological, tainted by Marxism’s uncritical adoption of “Whiggish optimism” from bourgeois liberalism (which it otherwise ruthlessly critiqued) Late Stalinists like Losurdo and Horne make entire careers out of these claims.  Against such petty iconoclasm, James Vaughn explains:

While classical Marxism readily assumed and asserted the epochal significance of 1776, it has become necessary in the postmodern wasteland of the present to painstakingly reconstruct the historical and social imagination from which such statements sprung.

Vaughn’s outstanding essay on “1776 in World History: The American War of Independence as a Bourgeois Revolution,” provides a much-needed antidote to the debilitating disease of “history from below.” I urge everyone reading this to take a look at it.

Petty iconoclasm

Anyway, Thomas Jefferson is one of the more significant casualties of this tabloid-style exposé. Pointing out liberal hypocrisies, especially those that are several centuries old, has become such a hackneyed routine that I’m not sure why anyone even bothers with it anymore. Everyone knows that Jefferson was a slaveholder, and that he would do business Napoleon and try to suppress the Haitian Revolution during his presidency is common knowledge also. But few are aware of Jefferson’s earlier commitment to ending slavery, eloquently expressed in this deleted passage from the Declaration of Independence:

[King George] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed again the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

Delegates from Carolina and Georgia struck such language from the final draft only with great difficulty, and after much debate. Though the contradiction between liberty and slavery tormented Jefferson in his youth, and despite his naïve belief (shared with many other Founding Fathers) that the peculiar institution would wither away within the space of a couple generations, he clearly changed his tune later on and became an apologist for the status quo. What gives, then? Surely there’s no point defending such an obvious hypocrite.


In anticipation of Independence Day, however, and looking further down the road to Bastille Day, it behooves us to consider more carefully Jefferson’s place within the revolutionary pantheon of his time. For Jefferson not only instigated the American Revolution, after all; he was a participant in the French Revolution as well, though in the role of a diplomat and observer. And his sympathies lay with the Jacobins, which is something he makes clear in several of his letters. Continue reading

Democracy and the Left

Alan AkrivosDick Howard 
Alan MilchmanJoseph Schwartz

On February 5, 2014, the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a conversation titled ‘Democracy and the Left’ at the School of Visual Arts in New York. The participants were Alan Akrivos (Socialist Alternative), Dick Howard (Stony Brook University), Alan Milchman (Internationalist Perspective), and Joseph Schwartz (Democratic Socialists of America). The description of the event reads as follows:

From the financial crisis and the bank bail-outs to the question of “sovereign debt”; from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street; from the struggle for a unified European-wide policy to the elections in Greece and Egypt that seem to have threatened so much and promised so little — the need to go beyond mere “protest” has asserted itself: political revolution is in the air, again. The elections in the U.S. and Germany seem, by comparison, to be non-events, despite having potentially far-reaching consequences. Today, the people — the demos — seem resigned to their political powerlessness, even as they rage against the corruption of politics. Demands for democracy “from below” end up being expressed “from above”: The 99%, in its obscure and unorganized character, didn’t express itself as such in the various recent elections but was instead split in various tendencies, many of them very reactionary. Democracy retains an enigmatic character, since it always slips any fixed form and content, since people under the dynamic of capital keep demanding at times “more” democracy and “real” democracy. But democracy can be like Janus: it often expresses both emancipatory social demands as well as their defeat, their hijacking by an elected “Bonaparte.” What history informs demands for greater democracy today, and how does the Left adequately promote — or not — the cause of popular empowerment? What are the potential futures for “democratic” revolution as understood by the Left?

What follows is an edited transcript of the event. A full recording can be found online. Once again, I’m not in Platypus. Indeed, I’m apparently not even welcome at their events, despite it having been over a year since I quit. Still, I think this is a worthwhile exchange and am reposting it here in the hope that someone might actually read it.

Opening remarks

Dick Howard:
 There is a fundamental difference between the French Revolution and the American Revolution, which leads to a vision of democracy that is radically different in the two contexts.

The American Revolution was an anti-colonial revolution against the state that wanted to get the British off of the backs of Americans and leave society to go on in its own way. There’s an anti-statist tradition in the United States. The American Revolution went through three distinct phases: declaring independence, winning the war, and then the problem that Ukrainians are going have to face, namely, how do you give society a political framework such that it can hold together? That’s the period of the failure of that kind of direct democracy found in the Articles of Confederation. Finally, a nation-state was created.

America became a nation-state and a democratic state insofar as you had the “Revolution of 1803.” That was not only when the Jeffersonians (the opposition) won the presidency, but also when the decision in Marbury v. Madison recognized that the society was one, held together by its constitution despite the diversity of the society that was framed by the constitution. That gave America a republican democracy: the constitution which frames the republic holds priority and gives the unity within which a diversity can flourish.

During the French Revolution, insofar as the society was based on status rather than equality of opportunity, the power of the state was used in order to transform society. That process of using the state power to transform society went through phases, and you can list the canonical dates: the high point of the Jacobin period in 1793, the reaction against it, the empire, the return of the monarchy, then 1830, 1848, 1870, and finally — even Platypus puts it into its name — 1917, which, apparently, is the realization of that dream that begins with the French Revolution. That dream is that the gap between society and the state be overcome, but it is overcome by the action of the state. Instead of a republican democracy in the American sense, you had a democratic republic — the idea is that democracy and the state come together, and this is the elimination of the state.

I came to realize the importance of this distinction in 1990 or 1991 when I was giving a lecture in Greifswald, in the former German Democratic Republic, about the American Revolution and how the Americans created a “democratic republic.” The audience was not particularly happy because they had just gotten out of a democratic republic! What is that democratic republic? What is that republican democracy? There was awareness of this distinction well before a left-wing critique of totalitarianism developed.

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Adam Smith, revolutionary

Spencer A. Leonard
Platypus Review 61

By exposing the historical necessity that had brought capitalism into being, political economy became the critique of history as a whole.

— Theodor W. Adorno[1]

Unlike Jean-Jacques Rousseau or even Friedrich Nietzsche, Adam Smith is a thinker few on the contemporary Left will have much time for. This tells us more about the impoverishment of the currently prevailing intellectual environment than about the persistent, if ever more obscure, influence of bourgeois radicalism on the Left. Today, of course, it is fashionable to have “a critique of the enlightenment” or, alternatively, to defend it against an array of enemies, including postmodernism, religious conservatism, and academic obscurantism. Those currents of the contemporary Left that still seek to lay claim to the Enlightenment must fend off Smith, because, like Rousseau, his is an Enlightenment that cannot be upheld simply as an affirmation of “reason” or the demand for “human rights.” Smith’s Enlightenment demands to be advanced. His 1776 treatise, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, is not a product of the Scottish Enlightenment but of the cosmopolitan radical Enlightenment, stretching from the coffeehouses of Rotterdam to the meeting rooms of Calcutta. If that cosmopolitan Enlightenment project remains “unfinished,” it is because the course of history since the publication of Smith’s magnum opus failed to fulfill and indeed undermined the radical potentials of the eighteenth century.

Cornwallis’ 1781 surrender at Yorktown, where American soldiers sang the British Revolutionary song “The World Turned Upside Down”

Cornwallis’ 1781 surrender at Yorktown, where American soldiers
sang the British Revolutionary song “World Turned Upside Down”

Smith’s powerful influence upon French revolutionaries such as the Abbé Sieyes and the Marquis de Condorcet, and through them upon Immanuel Kant, Benjamin Constant, and G.W.F. Hegel, are not as well known as they should be, but that need not detain us from coming to terms with the profound radicalism of his thought. Less well known still is the respect that Smith and his close friend, David Hume, held for Rousseau’s works. Hume, refusing to allow his famous public quarrel with Rousseau to cloud his judgment, contended in a letter to Smith that the Genevan’s writings were “efforts of genius.”[2] This was an estimate Hume doubtless knew would find favor with his friend, since as early as 1756 Smith had written an article that is perhaps the earliest discussion in English of Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men, singling that work out as the act whereby the Francophone world re-established its supremacy in philosophy for the first time since Descartes, displacing the preeminence of English political and social thought that had lasted for almost a century with the writings of Hobbes, Locke, Mandeville, Shaftesbury, and others.[3] Continue reading

Nietzsche’s untimeliness

Sunit Singh

The following article first appeared in the Platypus Review. It covers some of the same terrain that I explored around a year ago in my reflections on the recent “anti-Nietzschean turn” that has taken place on the Left. Sunit’s piece ranges a bit more widely than my own, and incorporates important insights from the early Marxist Franz Mehring and the later critical theorists of the Frankfurt School elucidating Nietzsche’s fraught relationship to his own time, bourgeois liberal democracy, and the rise of the socialist workers’ movement.

I’d also recommend Mazzino Montinari’s excellent overview, Reading Nietzsche. Montinari was an Italian Marxist dissident who left the PCI during the early 1970s, and helped edit the collected works of Nietzsche in German.


Eros and Civilization: the title expressed an optimistic, euphemistic, even positive thought, namely, that the achievements of advanced industrial society would enable man to reverse the direction of progress, to break the fatal union of productivity and destruction, liberty and repression — in other words to learn [Nietzsche’s] gay science.

— Herbert Marcuse

In [ancient] philosophy the duties of human life were treated as subservient to the happiness and perfection of human life. But when moral, as well as natural philosophy, came to be taught only as subservient to theology, the duties of human life were treated of as chiefly subservient to the happiness of a life to come…[But even] in [what came to be called] the modern philosophy [perfecting virtue] was frequently represented as generally, or rather as almost always inconsistent with any degree of happiness in this life; and heaven was to be earned only by penance and mortification, by austerities and abasement of a monk; not by the liberal, generous, and spirited conduct of man.

— Adam Smith

Nietzsche believed that gaining even a modicum of reason and freedom had to be a hard won, blood-soaked, and world-historical affair, but was nevertheless inclined to be as uncharitable in the extreme toward Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “the seducer” behind the idealist and rabble in the French Revolution, as toward the socialists who claimed to be the inheritors of the Jacobin tradition. He identified Of the Social Contract — a meditation on the conditions of possibility for the radical self-determination of modern civilization — as putting forward the first image of modern man to inspire mortals to a “transfiguration” of their own circumstances. However, modern man turned out to be a creature afflicted with a fevered historical self-consciousness that periodically flared up in revolutions, “like Typhon under Etna.”[1] It was a symptom of this curious sickness, Nietzsche held, that had led the philosophizing son of a watchmaker to characterize man as a creature full of pity or empathy and as capable of perfectibility, while positing an unwarranted faith in nature as an idyll of freedom. Nietzsche saw modern civilization as a chimera, characterized by what Kant had referred to as “glittering misery” and by the creation invidious interdependencies, but had reached the opposite conclusion as the “Citizen of Geneva.” For Nietzsche, plunging further into the civilization that the latter abhorred “is precisely that which speaks in favor of civilization.”[2] For moderns, who were proving themselves unable to squarely take on the task of Enlightenment, it was as “reasonable” to consider a return to nature as it was for them to revive Greek tragedy; we moderns had no chance of ever going back to the state of nature — the state of nature was itself a myth that the dialectic of Enlightenment had necessitated.

Photograph of Nietzsche, Paul Rée, and Lou Salome, circa 1882.

Photograph of Nietzsche, Paul Rée,
and Lou Salome, circa 1882.

Despite identifying “the labor question” as an intractable issue of the industrial age, Nietzsche never offered a clear resolution to the “the physiological self-contradiction” that defines capitalism. One can admit as much without either attempting to shape Nietzsche on a Marxist lathe — the accusation once leveled at Adorno — or giving in to the idea that Nietzsche was an elitist, anti-democratic, and anti-liberal conservative.[3] The efforts to “let workers be themselves” had failed, Nietzsche wrote in Twilight of the Idols, as a result of “the most irresponsible negligence.” Nietzsche was apportioning fault for this “negligence” directly on the socialists, who were confounded as to why, in spite of the fact that workers had made enormous strides toward sociopolitical equality since the industrial revolution, and justifiably wanted more and felt “their existence to be desperate… an injustice,” their demands for “a social democracy” could not be met by the vote and contractual rights. Europe had to answer the workers, while the workers tried to articulate their own demands and to answer, “What do they will?”[4] But the socialists — those “superficial, envious, and three-quarter actors” infected with “nihilism” — had turned freedom into an ethic and so crab-walked backward into “a will to negate life.”[5] Further, their values were little more than refashioned Christian ideals rather than peculiarly modern aspirations; their certitude that a socialist revolution was inevitable was motivated by the same animalistic instincts that had led Christians to see the Last Judgment as “the sweet consolation of revenge.”[6] Such vituperations also masked the actual task of emancipation and left the socialists with the muddle-headed belief that, “[as] time marches forward…Everything that is in it also marches forward — that the development is one that moves forward.” Although, even “the most level-headed are led astray by this illusion,” Nietzsche claimed, “the nineteenth century does not represent progress per the sixteenth…’Mankind’ does not advance, it does not even exist…Man represents no progress over the animal: the civilized tenderfoot is an abortion.”[7] Despite the touted “progress” of the nineteenth over the eighteenth century, the socialists had overlooked or were unable to recover what earlier revolutionaries, inspired by the notion of the infallible sovereignty of the General Will, had understood — that rather than “dance in our ‘chains’” we had to break them.[8]

The case of anti-Nietzsche

The aristocratic antipathy in which Nietzsche held the Left is presumably one reason behind the leftist “anti-Nietzsche” stance. Others chafe at the fact that Nietzsche was a staunch individualist who clubbed the Marxist social-democrats together with the anarchists as well as with the Christian socialists; Nietzsche was satisfied to say that anarchism held “the same ideal [as socialism], but in a more brutal fashion,” while the dogmatic social-democrat who hypostatized class relations was in as bad faith as the Protestant minister who reconciled men to their wretched fate.[9] Malcolm Bull is the latest leftist to argue for an anti-Nietzsche stance. But with the critical difference that Bull’s criticism of Nietzsche is rooted in a conservatism that obfuscates the established tradition of left criticism of Nietzsche, which dates back to the revisionist debate. Bull compares Nietzsche to Durkheim, as both were diagnosticians who theorized that the incompleteness of our transition to modernity had manifested itself pathologically in what Nietzsche referred to as “decadence” or “nihilism,” and in what Durkheim called “anomie.” Continue reading

A Soviet homage to the Great French Revolution

Happy Bastille Day, everyone. To celebrate, here are some assorted artworks by early Soviet sculptors and painters commemorating the Great French Revolution.

We begin with two pieces from the years immediately following the October Revolution. One of these, of course, is the sculptor Nikolai Andreev’s frightening Head of Danton (1919). Less well known are the memorials to M. Robespierre (1918 & 1920) by Beatrice Sandomirskaia [Беатрисе Сандомирская] and Sarra Lebedeva.

Still more remarkable, though from a slightly later date, is the set of illustrations by the Bolshevik artist Mikhail Sokolov depicting the principal actors and main events of the last great bourgeois revolution. These were intended as part of a volume entitled Figures of the 1789 French Revolution (1930-1934), and are reproduced below alongside some of the historical representations on which Sokolov’s work was based.

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