On the Brink: US Politics and Weimar Germany

Few would dispute that 2020 has ushered in enough challenges to make 2016 look like “the good old days.” The one positive aspect for many will be the chance to vote out Donald Trump from the presidency in November. While no panacea, having someone competent and qualified would be preferable to the status quo. Of course, there are no illusions that Joe Biden will do anything but preserve the old order that brought us to the current crises, but for the sake of so many vulnerable groups already suffering, and given the limits of the two-party system, defeating Trump must be done.

True enough, but we must be aware of the inevitable right-wing backlash that could push the United States toward fascism or further into it. A useful exercise in doing so lies in comparing the modern U.S. to that of the Weimar Republic (the German state between the two World Wars). While pointing out the parallels between the two has become trite, I argue that it goes beyond genuflections on political polarization in the U.S. today but also into our social and economic lives. The U.S. is not just a nation divided by conflicting values; we are also witnessing major institutions fail in real time, causing  ordinary people to confront a clean break with the present and a severe lurch to the right or to the left, toward conservative counterrevolution or to radical progress.

United in Nationalism

The German Empire formed in 1871, unifying abundant autonomous minor princedoms in existence for centuries. While these small states had confederated in the past, there was no singular German identity connecting them until the 19th century, when romantic nationalism spawned Pan-Germanism, the dream of German-speaking people united in a sovereign state. This period also gave rise to the Sonderweg, meaning “special path.” At the time, German nationalists believed their nation had threaded the needle between retaining a centralized, traditionalist autocracy (as Britain and France had failed to do) while also quickly industrializing and reaching a high standard of living (unlike tsarist Russia). Thanks to these advantages, the nationalists argued, Germany would defeat her enemies, establish undisputed hegemony over Central Europe, and expand into the Slavic states to the east part of a Drang nach Osten (Drive to the East). Obviously, these ideas would influence Adolf Hitler and his later attacks on Poland and the Soviet Union during World War II. Nazi Germany would craft Generalplan Ost (the Master Plan for the East), calling for the ethnic cleansing of Slavs from captured territories and the “rebirth” of these areas via colonization by German settlers. From its inception German culture promoted the realization of destined superiority and dominance, and it was in the pursuit of this dream that Germany inflicted unprecedented horrors on the world.

The U.S. too has its “Manifest Destiny,” but its genocide is well in its past, in its origins. The forced relocation, deception, and massacre of Native American peoples by European settlers and later the U.S. government and its pioneers are a widely known aspect of our history, even if it does not feature widely in the public discourse. The Sonderweg has its U.S. twin in “American Exceptionalism,” the belief the we are unique among countries for our foundation on the principles of individual liberty, republican government, and diverse peoples assimilating into a single, superior culture (e pluribus unum). The ascension of the U.S. to the status of sole global superpower, the wealthiest and most powerful country in history, would support this view, much as the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 was validation of German transcendence over the hitherto dominant power on the European continent, France. The equivalent conflict in U.S. history would be the 1898 war with Spain, a campaign manufactured by the sensationalist U.S. media and designed to spread U.S. imperialism through the acquisition of Spanish territories in the Caribbean and the Pacific islands, establishing the U.S. as a true empire with foreign possessions it had no intentions of assimilating. This notion that greatness and glory were inevitable and somehow cosmically mandated set both Germany and the U.S. onto roads that became rails, leading to militarization, centralization, and long periods of dominance followed by abrupt collapse, the rise of totalitarianism, and total war.

“Stabbed in the Back”

In 1905 the Kaiser (Emperor) Wilhelm II visited Morocco in a bid to dispute French dominance over Morocco. Germany had pursued the acquisition of overseas territories to rival the huge French and British empires, and while it did gain some colonies in Sub-Saharan Africa and Oceania, these were minor holdings compared to the sprawling and lucrative French and British possessions. At the 1906 Algeciras Conference a summit of European leaders affirmed French hegemony over Morocco, resulting in Germany losing prestige. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which formally ended the Great War between Germany and the Allied Powers, humiliated Germany by imposing harsh reparations and disarmament, as well as stripping the country of its colonies. Additionally, Germany had to agree to a War Guilt clause that further sullied its reputation. Germany in the 1920s suffered not just from the ruin and ravages of war but also a national despair over their perceived disgrace. Rather than looking within themselves at their ideals and customs, Germans decided to blame their embarrassment on external enemies.

German nationalists refused to accept the defeat of the “superior” German military; its legacy was the famous military strength of 18th century Prussia. They asserted the German army was undefeated in the field. According to them, Germany lost because it was betrayed. This Dolchstoßlegende (stabbed-in-the-back) theory helped fuel the anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany, as Jews were among those groups blamed for sedition and treason. Other enemies included social democrats, communists, and anarchists who wanted to tear down much of what conservative Germans considered their proud heritage, including the figure of the Kaiser. While it was Hitler who would seize power, the restoration of Wilhelm II as an absolute monarch was the aspiration of many German conservatives in the 1920s and 1930s. It was not so much the man they wanted, but what he represented: a symbol of German excellence for Germans to rally behind. As fate would have it, Hitler stepped into that role instead, exploiting the national trauma to implement the extremely jingoistic and ethno-centric doctrine of National Socialism.

While Nazis have had a remarkable resurgence in U.S. politics, they remain marginal figures. Extreme jingoism and white supremacy, however, have been part of the U.S. identity since its establishment. The U.S. first made war on the indigenous population and later against its Latin neighbors. While World War I technically involved the U.S., it was World War II that produced the military-industrial complex that makes up such a substantial portion of the U.S. budget and economy. Since 1945 the U.S. has intervened militarily around the planet to reinforce its hegemony in increasingly unilateral wars, at the great expense of its international reputation. It was the Vietnam War where U.S. imperialism received its first real interrogation. U.S. nationalists, however, had their own version of the “stabbed-in-the-back” legend, with the military “prevented” from winning the war by weak Democrats and anti-authority social movements. More recently, Barack Obama was regularly criticized for his “apology tour” to Muslim countries, with the regular implication Obama himself was a covert Muslim and, by right-wing logic, not loyal to the U.S. Trump has furthered anti-Muslim discrimination with his attempts to ban travel from several Muslim countries, in addition to vilifying undocumented migrants from Central America (many fleeing countries destabilized by U.S. foreign policy) and rounding them up for inhumane detainment. Even though white Christians have constituted the U.S. ruling class throughout its history, this class has routinely blamed its shortcomings and ills on ethnic minorities and dissidents.

A Shock to the System

For a brief period in the 1920s, the Weimar Republic enjoyed prosperity, a time of jazz clubs and neon signs, dizzy intoxication to elude the freshly concluded nightmare. This golden age imploded with the stock market crash of 1929. Instead those boats once lifted by a rising tide wrecked on the shores of financial panic. Public trust in institutions—the government, big business, the media—plummeted across Germany. The people, especially the German middle class, gave up their newfound liberal republican ideals and chose National Socialism as a bold solution to their problems. In 1930, the Nazis saw their number of seats in the federal legislature increase from 12 to 107; in July 1932 they won 123 more seats, but still fell short of the 305 needed for a majority. Hitler did not become Chancellor of Germany until 1933 but clearly most of the German populace had embraced Nazi values as their own well before that, with all this historically entails. The fact that they were seeking radical solutions to an unprecedented crisis does not mitigate what that generation of Germans must be held accountable for, but it places into context why Germans would be willing to support the aspirations of the Third Reich, even if there was initial hesitation as Hitler steered Germany to war. The early victories of the war brought with it not stoicism but wild celebration before Stalingrad preceded a reversal of fortunes. After the war, Germany as a unified state ceased to exist, a deliberate deprivation of sovereignty, to undermine German nationalism. This had a lasting impact on German culture, resulting in the suppression of nationalist sentiments (until recently, with the rise of the anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland party).

In the modern U.S., the government actively props up the economy, with the central bank now directly purchasing corporate debt in the form of bonds, thus preventing the need for “bailout” legislation. Wall Street is now subsidized without any regulation. This “welfare for the rich” does not trickle down to the middle and working classes, who face growing unemployment and institutions straining to meet the crises. Even with mortgage payments and student loan repayments suspended, even with the stimulus checks issued earlier in the year, the perils of joblessness are arriving for more people. In a country where not just employment but a living wage can be hard to come by, and where adequate health care is tied to having a job that provides it, the people will naturally feel aggrieved and dissatisfied. For those groups like Black Americans who were already suffering great repression, indeed since the inception of the U.S., it did not take them long to reach breaking point, as they frequently have before.

The failure of the U.S. to come to terms with its history of race relations is one cleavage that will worsen and erode national stability, as systematic racism looms large over our history in such complexity and depth, the “peculiar institution” so inimitable in the world and yet also so disregarded in the white consciousness. Joined now with this ticking time bomb is the deliberate mass dispossession and exploitation of the working class, their little labor protections increasingly undermined, their compensation ludicrous given the national wealth they produce. It would be remiss not to mention the victims of heteronormative masculinity, as well as those straight or queer Black and Brown women who must live at the intersection of patriarchal persecution and racial subjugation. Those who therefore only speak of a “Black uprising are omitting that schisms of social, economic, political, and cultural dimensions are now rising to the surface in U.S., with each crack widening with every tremor, tearing us apart.

The Death of Caesar

Monarchists and other reactionaries in Weimar Germany yearned for the restoration of the Kaiser, not out of affection for Wilhelm II, but instead for the symbolic power he characterized as the living manifestation of a single state authority. It is not truly Caesar himself that is important but the idea of Caesar, the all-conquering hero, the benevolent dictator, the director of national destiny. Hitler as Führer was not Hitler as Kaiser, then, but as a once-in-a-millennium genius, a nationalist Messiah figure. If reactionaries are unable to turn the clock back, to reestablish the symbolic Caesar, they will support a real one, who promises not restoration but revolution. For Germany, that revolution was Hitler’s Reich and its attempt to realize its “special path” via non-conservative means.

While often unexpressed in any meaningful way, many German elites in civilian life and in the military opposed Hitler’s aggressive foreign policy and his implementation of the Holocaust, but it should be pointed out that their misgivings stemmed from skepticism of priority or execution, not with the racist philosophy behind them both. Albert Speer and Heinz Guderian may have had their publicized differences with Hitler, but certainly not enough to absolve them for their culpability in crimes against humanity. They, as much as the most ardent Nazis and undisputed architects of the Holocaust, possessed a nationalist spirit that drove them to hate and murder. Knowledge alone, however, is cold comfort; a Caesar figure helps to absolve the guilt that follows from those crimes that come with empire-building. Nationalist chants of “For King and country!” and “God save the Emperor!” are mantras, declarations meant to inoculate or cure those who bloody their hands in their construction by destruction. The ends therefore justify the means. At the Nuremburg Trials, however, the defense by Nazi war criminals that they were “just following orders,” i.e. working toward a higher purpose by following Hitler as an absolute dictator, did not spare them from judgment, even if the shade of their skin color spared them from the hangman’s noose, unlike for their Japanese counterparts.

Trump is not Hitler, but he is a Caesar figure, and this is obvious in how many of his ardent supporters see him: brazen and outspoken, energetic and driven, unafraid of the elitist “liberals” and “globalists” threatening U.S. independence and our “way of life.” They hoped that his election would overthrow the “deep state,” the clandestine “shadow government” of bureaucrats who run the country and the world. This populist distrust of U.S. leaders, many of whom indeed come from an extremely privileged upper class, finds expression in the infamous Pizzagate and QAnon conspiracy theories. If Trump loses in November, his followers will not see this as humbling, but as the martyrdom of their hero, the repudiation of their believed redemption. Trump’s defeat will not mean the demise of far-right politics, but instead the redirection of conservative passions away from the ballot box and to armed revolt. It is worth remembering that our first civil war started not with the U.S. expelling pro-slavery states from its ranks, but by those pro-slavery states opting for war instead of accepting an abolitionist U.S. president.

The second civil war may be sparked not because of the election of a new Lincoln but because of the repudiation of the worst U.S. president since Andrew Jackson. Trump himself is immaterial; he never had the ingredients to be a mediocre president, much less an exceptional one. His downfall, however, will signal to the right-wing elements in the U.S., already so terrified of the changing culture around them, that their days are indeed numbered. To expect them to go quietly into that good night is foolish. We must all recognize that defeating Trump is not the goal, but rather the defeat of the reactionary forces he represents, and the building of a new and better society.

US Imperialism Spreads to Outer Space

seal_of_the_united_states_space_forceOn December 20, 2019, the United States founded a new service branch of the U.S. Armed Forces, the U.S. Space Force (USSF). The expansion of U.S. military force into outer space created little fanfare in the media, save for social media mockery of the new branch’s camouflage uniform and an official Bible that will be used in the swearing-in of all USSF commanders. Perhaps the reason the creation of the USSF sparked so little public interest is that, currently, outer space is more interesting in the context of science fiction; science non-fiction is far less sensational. Yet the creation of the USSF should give us all pause, because it does indeed have a very specific and threatening purpose: to counter the burgeoning Chinese presence in space, poised to be a crucial part of a supposedly imminent U.S.-Chinese Cold War.

In December 2015, the People’s Republic of China created the People’s Liberation Army’s Strategic Support Force (PLASSF), of which a key component is the Space System Department, with authority over China’s military space-related assets. Earlier that year, the Chinese government had released an official document on military strategy that stated: “Outer space has become a commanding height in international strategic competition. Countries concerned are developing their space forces and instruments, and the first signs of weaponization of outer space have appeared.” On December 27, 2019, China successfully launched its Long March 5 rocket (capable of sending up to 25 tons of payload into low orbit) and plans to launch a Mars probe sometime in 2020. Although China does not rival the U.S. as a superpower, the parallels between this mounting competition and the historical “Space Race” between the U.S. and the Soviet seem obvious. Just as Moscow then then, Beijing is rapidly reforming and evolving its military capabilities, as both U.S. political parties have authorized huge increases in defense spending in the name of “national security.” This time, however, the race is to be the first nation to put human beings on Mars or to establish low-orbit space stations.

1280px-xu_and_gatesYet the idea that there is a new “Space Race” brewing rests on the presumption that the relationship between the U.S. and China resembles (or will resemble) that between the U.S. and Soviet Union. Certainly, there are “experts” who believe this must be the case. Speaking at a forum hosted by the influential Aspen Institute think tank in July 2019, John Rood, the U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, said China was “the one country… with the ability to change our way of life in the United States, and change the global order, for good or ill.” Chris Brose, former staff director of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, warned about the designs Beijing had on the South China Sea. Presumably Brose did not address what right the U.S. had to designs on the South China Sea, where the U.S. military has strong land, air, and naval presences in the Philippines and Singapore. The U.S. has enjoyed a hegemonic position in Asia for a long time, having acquired the islands of the Philippines and Guam in 1898 from the Spanish Empire after the Spanish-American War. After the brief interruption of the war with Japan in the 1940s, the U.S. commanded unrivaled control over the region. The U.S. still has around 30,000 troops stationed in South Korea and around 50,000 in Japan. Also headquartered in Japan is the U.S. 7th Fleet, the largest of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, with 60-70 ships, 300 aircraft, and 40,000 soldiers protecting U.S. interests.

Concern over the threat of China to U.S. control of Asia is nothing new in the Beltway. An element of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy was the “pivot to Asia,” which included the 2010 adoption of the Air-Sea Battle (ASB) doctrine, centered on coordinating the Navy and Air Force in a possible violent confrontation with China. Meanwhile, the Obama administration pursued a trade deal that became known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), framing it as an effort to reduce Chinese influence in Asia and advance the economic status of the U.S. When Donald Trump took office in 2017, he abandoned the TPP but resumed a hostile position to China, starting a prolonged trade war, which Trump recently settled to avoid further humiliation. Besides creating the USSF to counter the PLASSF’s “space warfare” program, Trump’s $738 billion National Defense Authorization Act reinforced close security ties with Taiwan and banned government agencies and their contractors from using equipment sold by Huawei, a telecom company with connections to the Chinese government. It is worth remembering that in 2013 NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the existence of PRISM, an NSA program where U.S. telecom companies Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and others shared private Internet communications with the government. These companies were obviously never sanctioned, since the U.S. government does not object so surveillance of its citizens, but rather encourages it. What cannot be permitted is foreign governments accessing sensitive information about the U.S. government, which has perfected global espionage. An increasing amount of U.S. military action abroad takes the form of special forces raids, drone strikes, and proxy conflicts to supplement its overt military force.

330px-henry_a_kissinger_28cropped29Throughout the Cold War, the U.S. policy of hostile relations toward the Soviet Union were rationalized according to a school of international studies known as realism. The common thread running through realism and its variations is that states act according to self-interest, seeking to maximize their advantages by any means possible. Realists differ over whether this mentality is human nature or the default state of anarchy that exists in the absence of a higher power. In the end, the outcome is the same: competing states must place ideals secondary to the choices necessary for hegemony or survival. By this logic, the U.S. government spent millions of dollars constructing the largest, most sophisticated military in world history, backed up by enough nuclear weapons to end life on the entire planet. There were also countless other expenditures related to winning the Cold War, from cultural propaganda to placing a man on the lunar surface.

The irony of this stance was that the bombastic signals these actions sent to the Soviet Union only spread anti-U.S. sentiment around the world. Lacking the historical context, many people inside the U.S. did not realize it was filling the role of imperial powers when their government intervened in the former French colony of Vietnam, or on the side of white supremacist governments in apartheid South Africa and Ian Smith’s Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). While claiming to be a beacon of liberty and democracy, the U.S. government allied with some of the most despicable, repressive regimes in the world. The 1960 Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro were initially more nationalist in character than Marxist, but since the U.S. had supported the harsh Batista dictatorship, the Soviet Union made a natural ally. Likewise, guerilla armies who fought white-minority governments in southern Africa gravitated to Moscow less out of a passion for Marx and Lenin than the need for weapons and resources to fight right-wing white supremacist states with ties to the U.S. This is not to say ideology was meaningless; but the communist case for human liberation and ending exploitation resonated (with good reason) among the poor and oppressed of the U.S. world order. To this day, the still extant socialist states and most potent communist parties are outside the capitalist powers, in the periphery of the international political, economic, and cultural systems.

220px-socialtheoryofinternationalpoliticsIn 1992, the academic Alexander Wendt published an article titled “Anarchy Is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics.” Wendt posited realism was wrong because it assumes states must act according to self-interest. Instead, realism was a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy; by investing so much in competing with other states, a state is naturally going to pursue conflict, especially when it enjoys superiority. The Cold War was not a natural, inevitable battle between two rival powers, but the result of policy choices that pushed both sides to conflict. As Wendt put it, “anarchy is what states make of it.” In other words, in the absence of a sovereign above them, states need not prepare for imminent war; in fact, by preparing for war, they are making war more likely. It is entirely possible for states to eschew the sort of force build-up and psychological warfare that characterized the Cold War at its darkest moments. At the very least, rival states could at least agree to a amicable agreement based on good will.

The reality that there was no inherent animus between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was on clear display during the extended period of détente in the 1960s and 1970s. Former anti-communist firebrand Richard Nixon sought a “peaceful coexistence” with Moscow while also thawing U.S. relations with Mao’s China. When Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher came to power in the early 1980s, however, it once again became conventional wisdom there could be no cooperation or even conciliation with the Soviet Union. U.S. conservatives like to give credit to Reagan for “winning” the Cold War, but this is a myth. If anything, Reagan’s bellicose saber-rattling and military build-up strengthened Soviet hardliners who were being challenged by liberalizing reformers like Mikhail Gorbachev. It was only when Gorbachev implemented his reforms that the Soviet Union imploded, as the release of public frustration ended party rule. Ultimately, for all its millions in defense spending, the U.S. did not need to fire a shot to attain worldwide supremacy. The Soviet Union, having bankrupted itself trying to compete with the U.S. and its allies, destroyed itself from within, its legitimacy withering away in the eyes of its citizens.

1024px-chinese_eva_spacesuit_28229It is therefore not a given that the U.S. needs to be a in a “space race” with China or preparing to defeat China in the South China Sea, or engage in any other behavior that positions China as an enemy or a rival. In fact, if anything, China is much more an ally of the U.S. than the Soviet Union ever was. Firstly, since the economic reforms of the late 1970s, China has jumped into its subordinate role in the global capitalist economy, adopting an export-oriented market trade policy, encouraging foreign investment, and providing cheap labor to manufacturing companies in the metropole countries. Remarkably, in its trade war with the U.S., “communist” China condemned protectionism and touted unrestricted free trade and globalization as desirable! To fuel its industrialization (as well as fill the rainy-day funds of party elites), China needs access to global markets, raw commodities, and the frontier technology of Silicon Valley. Unlike China, the Soviet Union had numerous allies and trading partners post-WWII so that it could operate separate from the capitalist powers, or at least to a much less degree than contemporary China. The Soviet Union failed to export goods outside Eastern Europe (the most successful export perhaps being the AK-47), whereas any random object sold in the U.S. likely bears the imprinting “Made in China.” At least as far as the government is concerned, China seems more inclined to maintain the status quo, reap the profits of the moment, and invest in development for the future. The idea that it is about to upturn the global order, much less engage in “space warfare,” is ridiculous, as China would lose.

The second reason China is unlike the Soviet Union is in their own promotion of communism, or at least in its partners “buying in” to certain systems, institutions, and policies. Soviet foreign policy revolved around the Communist International, which coordinated with communist parties in different countries to align themselves with Moscow. Military and economic aid were contingent on accepting a subordinate position to Soviet policy. The U.S. did much the same by attaching structural adjustment packages (containing neoliberal policy prescriptions and “good governance” frameworks) to financial assistance to underdeveloped countries via the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. Washington also puts immense value on its bases in foreign countries, even when locals denounce their presence. China, however, attaches few (if any) conditionalities to its aid. It has invested highly in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, but it is not funding guerilla movements or expecting governments to declare themselves communist. Instead, China is pursuing a foreign policy of “harmoniousness,” coexistence instead of competitiveness. If the Soviet Union was all about centering its ideological differences with the U.S., then contemporary China is setting aside ideological differences and concentrating 0n “win-win” results. It is the U.S. government that is being doctrinaire in its belief that there can only be one global superpower, and that it is the will of some higher power it be the United States.

Bumper stickers that read “Visualize World Peace” can sometimes be seen on U.S. roads, but it is time for people to visualize war in space. That is the direction we are heading unless it is understood that this collision course with China is happening, and that it is unnecessary. Rather than seeking to maintain unipolar U.S. hegemony from ocean to ocean, from cyberspace to outer space, we ourselves should become oriented to harmony rather than conflict. The U.S. and the planet at large barely survived one decades-long Cold War where humanity lived in the shadow of nuclear winter. We may well return to that shade if we cannot choose cooperation over conflict, peace over war.

 

Reactionary Sociologies: Cultural Hegemony of the Ruling Class

“The Left is rather prone to a perspective according to which the class struggle is something waged by the workers and the subordinate classes against the dominant ones.
It is of course that. But class struggle also means, and often means first of all, the struggle waged by the dominant class, and the state acting on its behalf, against the workers and the subordinate classes. By definition, struggle is not a one way process; but it is just as well to emphasize that it is actively waged by the dominant class or classes, and in many ways much more effectively waged by them than the struggle waged by the subordinate classes.”
Ralph Miliband, “The Coup in Chile” (1973)

Karl Marx (1818-1883), philosopher and German poliThe Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon ranks as perhaps Karl Marx’s greatest historical work. In the essay, he documents the events that culminated in the 1851 seizure of power in France by Louis Napoleon, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. His study of the French commercial bourgeoisie, the urban working class, and the “grotesque mediocrity” that was Louis Napoleon himself are descriptive only of a certain time and place, but the analysis of class struggle provides a useful inspiration Marxist scholars interpreting critical junctures past and present. For example, the rise of fascism in the West during the early 20th century played out in a manner comparative to the spread of liberal values in the late 19th century, just as the latter had a profound effect on the parameters set on the former. As the West enters another period of unrest, a similar class struggle is occurring. With neoliberalism under threat, elites are uniting with right-wing populists to frustrate and prevent popular challenges from the left.

The Past is Prologue

barricades_rue_saint-maur._avant_l27attaque2c_25_juin_1848._aprc3a8s_le28099attaque2c_26_juin_1848_28original29In 1848 liberal revolutions swept through western Europe, a sign that “rule by the sword and monk’s cowl” would no longer be accepted in the embrace of logic and reason post-Enlightenment. The turn to commercial agriculture had produced the bourgeoisie, who demanded greater freedoms and political participation. In France, the revolution started out peaceful a “matter of course,” with the “bourgeois monarchy” replaced with a “bourgeois republic” promoted by “the aristocracy of finance, the industrial bourgeoisie, the middle class, the petty bourgeois, the army, the lumpen proletariat…, the intellectual lights, the clergy, and the rural population.” Marx notes that this ruling class used force to put down a proletarian uprising in late June, in which thousands were killed, ending the “universal-brotherhood swindle.” Much more attention is passed to the following years, as Louis Napoleon is first elected president in December 1848, his struggle for power with various bourgeois factions, ending with the 1851 coup and the Napoleonic victory over the bourgeoisie. Replace Louis Napoleon with Hitler or Mussolini and we see parallels with moderate liberals underestimating megalomaniacal tyrants. In the modern age, we are still in the early days, but the prospect of democratic breakdown seems increasingly possible given dismal trust in major institutions, especially in political parties and governmental bodies. As before, there seems to be one element in common: liberal elites forming pacts with anti-democratic reactionaries in alliance against the working class, even at the (remarkably high) risk of right-wing betrayal.

In a series of articles detailing the class antagonisms of the 1848 revolution in France, Marx writes that it “was not the French bourgeoisie that ruled under Louis Philippe, but one faction of it: bankers, stock-exchange kings, railway kings, owners of coal and iron mines and forests, a part of the landed proprietors associated with them—the so-called financial aristocracy.” The downfall of the monarchy had as its chief objective “to complete the rule of the bourgeoisie by allowing, besides the finance aristocracy, all the propertied classes to enter the orbit of political power.” The bank is the “high church” to the financial aristocracy, and rather than letting the state fall into bankruptcy, the provisional bourgeois government seeks a “patriotic sacrifice” in a new tax on the peasantry. What is more, the bourgeois republic swiftly turned against the working class, with one minister remarking: “The question now is merely one of bringing labor back to its old conditions.” The proletarians of Paris revolted in the “June days,” which prompted a massacre of thousands. Across Europe, a similar pattern repeated as the continental bourgeoisie “league[d] itself openly with the feudal monarchy against the people,” with the bourgeoisie becoming victims themselves in the aftermath of the revolutionary era. Reactionary counterrevolutions were widespread and repressive, particularly in Russia. To the extent that western European states implemented liberal reforms in subsequent decades, it was not in response to revolution, but gradual reforms undertaken by bourgeois political parties in concert with the financial aristocracy and other elites from the old political order. These groups shared a common fear of the working class and organized labor, whom they proceeded to keep out of power.

Over time, the continued agitation of organized labor movements (including political parties affiliated with trade unions) as well as greater public awareness of extreme poverty, mass illiteracy, and high mortality among the working poor turned the “classical liberalism” of Adam Smith to the “social liberalism” of Leonard Hobhouse. Western European governments began introducing reform packages including old age pensions, free school meals, and national health insurance. In Germany, the conservative statesman Otto von Bismarck created the first modern welfare state in a successful bid to stave off competition from socialist rivals. These strategic concessions by elites inspired some on the political left to argue socialism could be implemented in a similar vein, through incremental legislative reforms. In the U.K., this school of thought was embodied by the Fabian Society, whose members included two co-founders of the London School of Economics, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, as well as the Irish playwright and activist George Bernard Shaw. In Germany, social democratic politician Eduard Bernstein served as principal theorist in articulating a modified version of Marxism, where socialism would not come through violent revolution but by peaceful, lawful means. Bernstein even cited the repression of the Parisian proletariat in 1848 as an example of why revolution was actually a path to reactionary victory, not socialism.

In response to Bernstein’s revisionism, the German communist Rosa Luxemburg wrote a pamphlet in 1899, Social Reform or Revolution?, arguing that accumulative state-sanctioned reform “is not a threat to capitalist exploitation, but simply the regulation of exploitation. …[I]n the best of labor protective laws, there is no more ‘socialism’ than in a municipal ordinance regulating the cleaning of streets or the lighting of streetlamps.” According to her, the political participation of the working class in democratic societies is ultimately fruitless because “class antagonisms and class domination are not done away with, but are, on the contrary, displayed in the open.” In other words, the parties vying for power in legislatures take on the class character of the constituencies: a Conservative Party for the traditional ruling class, a Liberal Party for the commercial bourgeoisie, a Labour Party for the working class, and so on. Yet capitalism is fundamentally about the economy and economic power, not politics or laws. For Luxemburg, just as it was for Marx, the route to proletarian liberation was not through parliaments, but through a dictatorship of the proletariat, with the absolute class dominance of the working class over others. Only through this complete reversal in class relations could the workers of the world seize the means of production and build real, lasting socialism. Even as Luxemburg later became a critic of the Bolsheviks for what she claimed were undemocratic practices, she never endorsed liberal democracy as a credible avenue for rescuing the working class from their oppressed, exploited state.

The Ruling Class and Fascism

In 1919, right-wing paramilitaries operating under orders from the social democratic German government murdered Luxemburg and tossed her body in a Berlin canal. That social democratic politicians, ostensibly dedicated to building socialism, would use such methods against the revolutionary communist opposition seemed to validate the criticisms by the communists that reform-minded social democrats would, in the end, align themselves with the ruling class instead of ordinary workers. This was borne out by other examples. In early 1929, the Berlin police, directed by the social democratic government, used vicious force to put down banned communist rallies on May Day. Dozens died, most of them innocent bystanders and not communists at all. In the U.K., the 1929 Great Depression led to first ever Labour Party election victory, but rather than pursue socialist policies, Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald formed a “National Government” with the Conservative and Liberal parties, betraying his left-wing blue-collar base. In France and the U.S., social liberals were able to placate anger and anxiety over the economic crisis by finally creating welfare states, including the New Deal policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, while maintaining capitalist economies.

Rede Adolf Hitlers zum ErmächtigungsgesetzIn Germany and Italy, however, resentments instilled by World War I and the effects of the Wall Street stock market crash left conservative and liberal politicians exposed to populist grievances. This led to a surge in popularity for the far left and the far right in both countries. Notably, neither Adolf Hitler in Germany nor Benito Mussolini in Italy came into government by force; rather, they were appointed by elder statesmen, Hitler by President Paul von Hindenburg, and Mussolini by King Victor Emmanuel III. Although both men later seized absolute power, they had the support of the upper and middle classes, especially the petty bourgeoisie. Democracy was destroyed, but in both cases, capitalism was maintained. Hitler collaborated with German industrialists, with private companies designing everything from Nazi uniforms (Hugo Boss) to aircraft engines (Daimler-Benz, owner of Mercedes-Benz). The Italian automobile manufacturer Fiat produced machinery for Mussolini’s armed forces as well. Just as today, war was good business, and companies were keen to profit from it. Meanwhile, trade unions were abolished, and labor issues became a matter for the state to regulate. Contemporary right-wingers in the West often attempt to portray Nazi Germany or fascist Italy as “socialist” or “communist” in ideology or character, but truthfully they shared an intense hatred for Marxism and the Soviet Union (along with Japan, the two future Axis powers were signatories to the 1936 Anti-Comintern Pact, an informal alliance explicitly aimed at opposing Moscow and the spread of communism.

Domestically, Nazi Germany and fascist Italy rounded up political prisoners and placed them in jails or concentration camps, many of them from radical left-wing parties. In Italy, this included one of the founders of the Italian Communist Party, Antonio Gramsci. An activist who organized industrial action at Fiat factories, Gramsci was also a Marxist theorist, his primary contribution being the idea of “cultural hegemony.” According to Gramsci, the ruling class no longer needs to rely on force or the threat of force to exercise social control. Instead, the subordinate classes adopt the norms, ideas, and values of the dominant group, internalizing them as their own. Civil society in capitalist societies create and consolidate this cultural hegemony through institutions separate from the state (schools, places of worship, even family units) that nevertheless encourage and reinforce acceptance of the status quo. The role of religion in bolstering those in power while also functioning as an “opiate of the masses” is well-known, but practices like reciting the “Pledge of Allegiance” in a classroom or deferring to “father knows best” in family matters also develop submission to authority. Presenting the default quality of human nature to be self-interested and egocentric contributes to the perception of capitalism as normal, innate to humanity itself. In this way perspectives critical to maintaining and expanding capitalism and the power of the ruling class become “common sense” and “conventional wisdom.” It becomes easier in the popular imagination to imagine the world endling than it does to imagine a world without the dominant economic and political systems. This is reflected in a slogan employed by Margaret Thatcher in her promotion of neoliberal economics: “There is no alternative.”

The Case of Spain: Sociological Francoism

344px-francisco_franco_1930In July 1936, civil war erupted in Spain between the popularly elected left-wing government and right-wing rebels, the latter eventually headed by General Francisco Franco. After the victory of the rebels in 1939, Franco became the dictator of Spain and would remain so until his death in 1975. While not explicitly fascist, the Franco regime was undeniably authoritarian-conservative, favoring militaristic nationalism and very traditional Roman Catholicism. Political opponents in Francoist Spain were brutally repressed by state law enforcement agencies, with death warrants personally signed by Franco himself. The government, however, also implemented was is now termed “sociological Francoism,” the internalization in the Spanish public of ideas and values that supported the dictatorship. The government only recognized Castilian Spanish as the “official language” of Spain, denying the reality that tens of thousands of Spanish citizens spoke other languages, such as the Catalan and Basque languages. The Catholic Church had authority over Spanish schools and teachers who were judged to be insufficiently pious were dismissed from their posts. The orphans of parents who had fought for or supported the left-wing government during the civil war were turned over to Catholic orphanages and taught that their parents had been terrible sinners. State propaganda substantiated patriarchal gender roles, with men encouraged to be proud, aggressive warriors and women to be obedient, unassuming mothers and housekeepers.

While politically illiberal, Francoist Spain embraced economic liberalism, attracting around $8 billion in foreign direct investment and a booming tourism business. Despite the obviously tyrannical nature of the government, corporations and bourgeois holiday-goers were keen to profit from opportunities available in the country. It was easier to ignore and welcome the harshness directed at left-wing dissidents than to take a principled stand, especially for those sectors of Spanish society that had no natural sympathy for the cultural minorities or the militant working class. Francoist Spain helped to demonstrate that economic prosperity and a relatively high standard of living can eclipse notions of political liberty and civil responsibility for a majority of social groups, contrary to what liberal idealists would claim. The growth of the Spanish economy for fifteen years, from $12 billion to $76 billion, kept Francoism secure.

When Franco died in 1975, a democratization process occurred in which political parties from the left and right forged an agreement called the “Pact of Forgetting.” There would be no formal reckoning with the human rights abuses and repression of dissent that had occurred during Francoist rule. Individuals and institutions who had blood on their hands were allowed to continue in public life. The Spanish 1977 Amnesty Law (still in force today) granted immunity to perpetrators of atrocities from any prosecution or punishment. This consensus to avoid dealing with the crimes of the past meant that Spanish society did not polarize in the aftermath of Francoism, ensuring a stable and sustainable transition to a peaceful democracy rather than chaos and division leading to another potential civil war. Justice was sacrificed for political order and national unity.

In 2007, a center-left government in Spain passed a law intended to overturn the “Pact of Forgetting” and to finally recognize the rights of victims who suffered during the civil war and the dictatorship by rehabilitating the reputation of political prisoners, identifying those killed in summary executions and buried in unmarked graves, and removing Francoist symbols from public life. In 2014 a report made by the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights found that implementation of the law was “timid” and that only three regions had supplied any meaningful effort in trying to locate people who had gone missing during the Franco years. Today, the major center-right political party in Spain, the People’s Party, traces its origins to Manuel Fraga, a former Francoist minister who oversaw the gradual, highly compromised transition from dictatorship to democracy. The People’s Party strongly opposed the passage of the 2007 law to finally deal with the repression of the Franco era, claiming it was “an argument for political propaganda.” Many works of art censored under Franco are still published in their censored or expurgated forms. Most recently, the People’s Party has been losing ground politically to a far-right party, Vox, which in addition to being openly xenophobic and sexist also expresses unreserved nostalgia for the Franco regime. While Franco’s formal dictatorship no longer exists, the cultural hegemony it utilized is still in place, with generations of Spaniards past and present conditioned to view the dark years of Francoism as not only far and respectable but even desirable. Today some Spaniards still openly lament: “Con Franco vivíamos major” (“We lived better with Franco”).

The Cultural Hegemony of Today

tina-thatcher-e1450536813194Just as the unrest of 1848 and the 1920s were ultimately triumphs for reactionaries, it seems that the present global tension is boosting the extreme right. The rise of Vox in Spain has its parallels in the U.S. “alt-right,” the arch-Brexiteers in the U.K., far-right populists in Brazil, ad nauseum. A large reason for this trend is that, culturally, these movements have received greater tolerance and even acceptance in these countries than left-wing movements typically spearheaded and supported by the younger generation. In societies where repressive violence is widely considered incongruent with liberal values, left-wing challenges are instead frustrated through unfavorable media coverage and social bias against unconventional progressive proposals. For example, universal health care is generally regarded with disbelief and skepticism as a dangerous, extreme policy despite the fact that almost all industrialized countries have some form of it. Calls to abolish NATO, explicitly set up to combat the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact countries, are dismissed as absurd despite the fall of the Soviet Union and its Eastern Europe allies several decades ago. Meanwhile, appeals to the principles of the past, despite being steeped in prejudice and ignorance by modern standards, at least have the virtue of familiarity. In other words, in the minds of many people, it is safer to go back than forward, even if it is at the expense of marginalized, vulnerable communities who have only just received some modicum of social justice after decades of fierce struggle.

It is doubtful that the present social control protecting the ruling class and favoring reactionaries will falter until there is the development of what Gramsci described as “counterhegemonic culture.” For Gramsci, cultural hegemony is not monolithic; it is borne from social and class struggle that it, in turn, molds and influences. Cultural hegemony is therefore a contested and shifting set of ideas. In the U.S., it is notable that the predominant counterhegemonic critique is less radical than it is sometimes treated in the mainstream press; the “socialism” equated with U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, the embodiment of the left-wing attack on the status quo, is more evocative of the welfare state policies of the New Deal era or many modern European capitalist countries. Millennial Americans, while typically more empathetic and more tolerant than past generations, are also less militant than their historical counterparts when it comes to political action. Recent so-called flashpoints of left-wing opposition, such as the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement and 2017 Women’s March, have had festival atmospheres rather than the rage-fueled confrontations with authorities that were characteristic of the 2011 Tahrir Square protests in Egypt or the 2019 Hong Kong demonstrations. Western counterculture is still defined by individuality and avant-garde attitudes, but now more than ever also takes place through professional commercial operations. Music festivals and events of “radical self-expression” like Burning Man are less threats to the status quo than sanctioned profit-making avenues for “sticking it to the man” without actually risking real consequences through acts of civil disobedience and resistance.

The answer for this absence of popular revolt and meaningful counterhegemonic culture may be our own sociological sickness, a nostalgia for the neoliberal golden age of the 1980s-1990s. Western liberal societies did not have the pseudo-fascist traits of Franco’s Spain, but there are parallels with a period of economic prosperity coupled with indirect state violence against social “undesirables” (the ignored AIDs epidemic and the vilification of black “welfare queens” in the U.S., the industrial decline and racial tensions of Thatcher’s Britain). Also, just as the Spanish Civil War and the right-wing victory destroyed a powerful left-wing movement in Spain, the failure of 1960s protest in the West to enact real reform led to the virtual demise of a significant organized left-wing mobilization for the rest of the 20th century. Spaniards who grew up in Franco’s Spain were conditioned to accept the regime and its values as “normal” and correct; so too did many Westerners grow up in an environment where counterculture was a fun outlet for the weekends rather than a long, drawn-out struggle. While Western left-wingers may chant “Another world is possible,” it must be asked whether they have either the imagination to picture such a world, or the discipline to ever realize it.

May the Best Social Democrat Win

320px-youth_voice_presidential_forum_284878162773329In a recent interview with ABC News, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders highlighted this distinction between him and rival Democratic presidential candidate, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren: “Elizabeth, I think, as you know, has said that she is a capitalist through her bones. I’m not.” Sanders claims Warren would just tinker at the margins of the existing economic system, whereas he would seek to replace capitalism itself. In terms of tactics, the candidates are virtually identical, as both are using left-wing populist messages to sell their campaigns as crusades to change the status quo. While Warren has emphasized her “plans,” in substance their policy proposals are remarkably similar. They are also alike in status: U.S. senators who caucus with Democrats with similar left-wing voting records. So, are they really all that different?

320px-elizabeth_warren_visits_roosevelt_high_school_284893857431129The most concrete difference between Sanders and Warren is not so much ideological as chronological. Several of Warren’s colleagues have recounted her past as an ardently free market-supporting Republican. Sanders, by contrast, has been staunchly on the left his entire political career, and therefore is more appealing to left-wing diehards. Warren’s conversion to the Democratic Party, however, may say more about the two-party system in the U.S. than anything about Warren. Since the late 20th century, the Republican and Democratic parties have been more alike than different, sharing a loyalty to a constellation of established interests. Of the two, the GOP has been the more dynamic, evolving from the evangelicals and economists to conspiracy theorists and nativists. The Democrats, instead, have held onto the mantle of inoffensive centrism firmly in place since the 1980s. It is only recently that taking a more left-wing posture has won support among Democratic leaders, and even by that metric Warren was a relatively early convert to government regulation and a fairer economy. After all, she made her political career by pushing for a more powerful Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which had its opponents within the Obama White House. Friends of Wall Street, like then-Vice President Joe Biden, wanted the CFPB to be toothless. Warren, however, vocalized her belief that the disaster of the 2008 financial crisis demanded a stronger, more centralized oversight over U.S. financial practices.

240px-36_vikingo.svg_If Warren was never that radically right, Sanders has never been that radically left. When asked for a concrete model the U.S. should adopt, he has pointed to Scandinavian states such as Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. In 2013 The Ecomomist (hardly an anti-capitalist publication) sung the praises of “the next supermodel,” the so-called “Nordic model” of free market capitalism coupled with large states with large budgets. The magazine notes that Denmark and Norway permit privately-owned corporations to run public hospitals, while Sweden has a universal system of school vouchers. This “enhanced Thatcherism” is offset by high spending on social services funded by high taxes, which The Economist maligns: “Too many people—especially immigrants—live off benefits.” For the free market advocate, the Nordic countries “waste” too much on generous welfare states. Nevertheless, there is still clearly a class system, one in which impoverished non-Nordic people have to subsist on government assistance. In the end, Sanders’ example of countries to emulate are the capitalist countries of Europe, where labor movements and social democratic parties established Keynesian mixed economy welfare states. Such states existed across Western Europe after WWII thanks to powerful labor movements as well as a litany of social democratic politicians.

Sanders describes himself as a “democratic socialist,” but he is more accurately a social democrat. The similarity of those terms invites confusion and requires some historical context. In 1848, Europe was hit with several liberal revolutions demanding the distribution of political rights (such as voting for all men without concern for property or income). It was these uprisings that most directly inspired Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to make their communist call to action. What they advocated, however, was not democracy, but class domination of another sort: the establishment of a dictatorship of the proletariat that would seize the means of production and destroy the bourgeoisie before abolishing class entirely, along with the state. Communism is inherently anti-democratic because it presumes a stateless as well as classless society. Social democrats, therefore, have departed from the revolutionary aspects of Marxism and have embraced parliamentary politics and legislative reform. These methods have invited sacrificing ideological purity for courting public support, as best demonstrated by the rush of many social democratic parties to support the wars of 1914—1918 across Europe, many of them entering into coalitions with centrist and even conservative political parties.

sozialdemokratische_partei_deutschlands2c_logo_um_1930Everything changed with the foundation of the first socialist state, the Soviet Union, in October 1917. The bullet had showed itself more effective than the ballot box. Violent revolution threatened not just the pro-capitalist politicians but the social democratic ones as well, and out of self-interest they gravitated to anti-communist policies. This was most historically evident in the case of the German Social Democratic Party, who used the police to crack down on the German communists and their paramilitary street-fighting squads. There was also the “threat” of Soviet diplomacy and the institution representing global communism under Soviet guidance, the Communist International. In a world order of competing superpowers, many governments felt pressure to align with one state or the other, for economic if not security reasons. The wealthier, most industrialized countries tended to be capitalist democracies, and to be accepted into that bloc required opposition to Moscow. After the 1980s paradigmatic shift to neoliberalism and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the capitalist democracy became the norm, the “end of history,” as Fukuyama called it. If the crisis of 2008 meant the beginning of the end for neoliberalism we know it, then the future is looking less like unchartered territory and more like a return to the social democratic models of post-war Europe.

Sanders and Warren are both presenting visions for reform that would extend democracy into the economic life of U.S. citizens (such as by strengthening labor unions and granting employees partial corporate ownership), but would fundamentally preserve strong private companies, including the increasingly narrow of multinationals who dominate most trade and industries. A large state with generous social services is not socialism; in fact, having such a large state with extensive influence over society and the economy is considered a feature of fascism. This why the Soviet Union condemned the social democratic parties of 1920s Europe as “social fascists,” or as “the moderate wing of fascism.” Sanders and Warren would probably both like to create a neo-corporatist framework of tripartial coordination between employers, unions, and state entities, not unlike those that emerged in post-World War II Europe, including in Scandinavia. This would be preferable to the depletion of social welfare programs in the U.S. to fund the ever-growing military-industrial complex, but it would not be a means to socialism. It would be the enlargement of the state, when an aim of socialism is to abolish it. A dictatorship of the proletariat, by contrast, would have a purpose other than existing for itself in the provision of needs and services. Its function would be to realize the ambition of abolishing property and ending exploitation. Neither Sanders nor Warren present a path for getting to that goal because that is not their goal; the aim is merely to alleviate the worst abuses of capitalism than abolish capitalism itself.

In the case of the U.S., it would mean that Washington and New York would continue to go on as the hegemons of the world politically and economically, funding highly profitable industries through the exploitation of peripheral underdeveloped countries. A portion of that wealth would be redirected into programs starved off resources or into creating innovative programs considered reasonable and moderate by European standards. Undoubtedly, a great deal of money will still be funneled into arms production (via the Pentagon) and corporate welfare. It would mean a considerable increase in the actual standard of living for many people in the U.S., certainly, and for many U.S. citizens, it would mean the best chance of reforming a corrupt, dysfunctional system whose contradictions and failures become more apparent and outrageous.

As a socialist myself, I recognize that the conditions for revolution do not exist in the United States. Electing a social democrat like Sanders or Warren would be an absolute good when the alternative is the persistence of a status quo that has produced the U.S. as an invader, human rights abuser, and the site of the economic malpractice behind the 2008 global financial crisis. The election of Donald Trump and the public surge of white supremacy accompanying it are just symptoms of societal breakdown as communities feel neglected and oppressed by uncaring elites. Rather than “socialism or barbarism,” we are facing “social democracy or barbarism,” by which social democracy still wins in a landslide. Obviously, the best way to accomplish this is to opt for unity rather than division in face of needing to defeat not only Trump but centrist champion Biden.

At the same time, calls like that by the L.A. Times for Sanders to drop out (before a single Democratic primary vote has been cast) and endorse Warren are absurd. Sanders and Warren must both play to win. While close on policy, their approaches are indeed different, with Warren taking the path of the conventional bridge-builder and hand-shaker (this time it’s selfies) as Sanders maintains his firebrand bravura. Warren’s recent rise in Democratic polls likely draws from moderate voters preferring her to Sanders, especially as questions arise about Joe Biden’s health and his son, Hunter, unethically gaining status in foreign oil and gas companies based on his familial connections. Hunter Biden’s “qualification” was his connection to his father. This sort of “legal corruption” embodies what the aggrieved masses despise: the ruling class enriching itself at the trough of unashamed nepotism and blatant horse-trading.

Assuming Biden continues to struggle in the polls, the race will indeed become increasingly about what separates them. Warren will probably continue to be the more successful candidate, precisely because the Democratic nominee must navigate a process that is still dominated by special interest groups, policy institutes, and political action committees. While Bernie Sanders and his campaigns have been instrumental in mobilizing people on the left like no other political candidate in recent memory (especially working class people), that same grassroots movement has failed to penetrate the institutions who decide who the nominee will be. That nominee will have to work with those institutions if elected, along with a hostile Republican opposition in the Senate and Supreme Court, to pass social democratic reforms that will be dubbed “socialist.” There is already evidence that the Republican Party is liberally using the “socialist” label when attacking Democrats ahead of 2020, citing the policies of Warren and Sanders along with Reps. Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Sanders and Warren represent a real shot at progress in the U.S., at least on economic issues. On important social questions like racial justice, and especially on U.S. foreign policy, there is still a lot of work to be done to pressure them to expand the parameters of what is possible in U.S. politics. We should have no illusions about the need to maintain pressure not only on hostile groups but candidates themselves who claim to be representing the political left. Voters are important during elections, but once the election is over, voters must continue to organize and petition decision-makers to be instruments of popular will.  One of the classic criticisms of social democracy is the “iron law of bureaucracy,” which holds that bureaucratic organizations inevitably give rise to powerful but largely self-serving layers of officials. Electing a social democratic candidate will not be sufficient, even though that itself will be difficult; that will need to be followed by even more energy from the left to oppose right-wing reaction and pearl-clutching by the centrist chattering class. There is still a lot of time left in the primary, however, and not a single vote has been cast. May the best social democrat win.

What is Communist Internationalism?

marx_and_engelsCentral to communism is a sense of solidarity, a kinship based on humanity that knows no class distinctions. It is a radical form of the “fraternity” enshrined in the French Revolution’s “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.” Writing in 1845, Friedrich Engels cast doubt on the ability of the bourgeoisie to form an international movement, given the bourgeoisie of any particular country would be too beholden to their own unique special interests. The masses who sell their labor, however, “have one and the same interest, one and the same enemy, and one and the same struggle” and therefore only they “can destroy nationality” and “bring about fraternization between the different nations” (The Festival of Nations in London). In the 1848 Communist Manifesto, Engels and Karl Marx distinguish the communists in part by their emphasis on “the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality” (Chapter 2). Nevertheless, they noted that “the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie is at first a national struggle. The proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie” (Chapter 1). Both supported the independence movements in Poland and Ireland at the time, believing autonomy essential for true solidarity.

198px-d092.d098.d09bd0b5d0bdd0b8d0bd._d09fd0b5d182d180d0bed0b3d180d0b0d0b42c_d18fd0bdd0b2d0b0d180d18c_1918_d0b3d0bed0b4d0b0Marx and Engels did not conceive of the First International as a means of promoting international communism, believing that “the simple feeling of solidarity based on the understanding of the identity of class position suffices to create and to hold together one and the same great party of the proletariat among the workers of all countries and tongues” (Engels 1885, On The History of the Communist League). The Second International collapsed into irrelevance in 1916 with the outbreak of World War I, as socialist parties tended to follow the nationalist groundswells in their respective countries. It was not until 1919, with the formation of the Third International—better known as the Communist International (Comintern)—by Vladimir Lenin. Lenin argued passionately for independence movements in the Russian Empire because the “fusion of nations” on a “truly democratic, truly internationalist basis” was impossible without the right to secede (1915, The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination). At the Second Congress of the Communist International in 1920, he called for a “union between revolutionary proletarians of the capitalist, advanced countries, and the revolutionary masses of those countries where there is no or hardly any proletariat, i.e., the oppressed masses of colonial, Eastern countries.” He observed that European imperialism had placed millions of people into bondage, exploiting them and their resources. He judged correct a modified slogan issued by the Communist International: “Workers of all countries and all oppressed peoples, unite!” (1920, Speech Delivered at a Meeting of Activists of The Moscow Organization of the RCP(B)).

The high-water mark of international socialist solidarity occurred during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. This included not only Soviet military aid but a large number of foreign volunteers in the International Brigades, organized by the Communist International to help the democratically-elected Popular Front resist the nationalist, fascist rebellion assisted by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. In the 1970s as well, the Soviet Union and Cuba intervened in Angola, providing critical support to a revolutionary government that had just won a war of independence against Portugal and faced opposition from apartheid South Africa and its ally, the United States. Other Soviet military interventions—such as in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968, against anti-government protests—put into question the claim articulated by Rosa Luxemburg in 1915 that “socialism gives to every people the right of independence and the freedom of independent control of its own destinies” (The Junius Pamphlet, Chapter 7). In addition to the usual reactionary chaos of voices, ready to repudiate communism as much for its successes as its failures, prominent left-wings critics within and without communist countries have sought to maintain a moral commitment against tyranny. All would agree, presuming their honesty, that the lives taken and resources plundered by the few communist states in history pale in contrast to the casualties and loot the advanced capitalist countries, in their respective imperial stages, can call claim to.

320px-occupy_may_day_2015_281712896148729Today the communist countries have either collapsed, retreated into isolationism, or liberalized economically and/or politically enough to smooth operation within the capitalist global economy. The idea of a global communist movement fell into torpor in the 1990s. With the gradual elimination of any state prone to development outside Western hegemony through a progress of regime change wars, it would be reasonable to assume any contemporary communist government is living on borrowed time. Yet, something remarkable is happening: for the first time since the dawn of the 20th century, the ideas of Marx and Engels are finding welcome audiences within the advanced capitalist countries. Deepening class stratification, stagnant wages, and vanishing job security have provoked class consciousness and an upsurge in social democratic politics once deemed too “radical.” It is dubious that such politics will be able to challenge the constellation of organized interests in the very heart of Western imperialism, especially in the absence of grassroots movements centered around labor issues, civil rights, and so on. Consequently, the populist clamor for change will turn more radical. Whether such energies are sufficiently marshaled into a relevant political force remains to be seen. The point is that the potential exists for radical left-wing movements to grow and overthrow the capitalist, white supremacist status quo.

But what happens the day after the revolution? Will the left-wing radicals of the core countries be satisfied with a sort of nationalist socialism, an egalitarian ideology qualified on patriotic fervor and identity? Nothing would be more cancerous to any attempt at building communism. Nationalism, after all, was the adhesive that held together the rotting, reactionary monarchies of Europe in World War I. It is the foundation for the infamous U.S. military-industrial complex predicated on a foreign policy of waging war instead of pursuing peace. It is the natural territory of the far-right, the means by Nazis as well as U.S. Republicans have directed working class people to go against their interests. It is nationalism that is inspiring disaffected, bitter white men to sublimate their insecurity and prejudices into bloody massacres. Any meaningful communist movement must take as one of its starting points and cardinal directions the elimination of distinctions based on race, ethnicity, or nationality in addition to class.

Heartless Romantics: Fascism and Romanticism

Twitter’s own Trillburne (aka The Discourse Lover) and the person behind the excellent Age of Napoleon history podcast recently tweeted this piece of fascist trivia:

The thing is, there’s a word for this bourgeois transgressive mentality: Romanticism.

213px-schmoll_goethe_vaThe philosopher and historian Isaiah Berlin, in a series of lectures (the audio of which you can find online), drew a straight line between the 18th century Romantic era and 20th century fascism. Specifically, he connects the Sturm und Drang cultural movement, Goethe, Schiller, Hegel and the usual cast of German idealists to the rise of Nazi Germany. Certainly, one can see some parallels between Goethe’s famous Young Werther and Adolf Hitler: both are impressionable, impassioned artists who killed themselves when their fanciful dreams were dashed. But whereas Werther chose suicide after rejection from the woman he loved, Hitler shot himself after the object of his desire — a grand German Empire, brutally cleansed of ideological enemies, its special destiny and supremacy manifest — fell to ashes. Werther was the quintessential sentimental fool, a sensitive soul who believed love should conquer all. Hitler, no less a fool, simply believed that, instead of love, Germany should conquer all — the culmination of a cultural faith in a “special path,” Sonderweg in German, for the sacred Fatherland and its volk, including expansionism into Eastern Europe — Drang nach Osten, the “desire for the East.”

180px-nietzsche1882Many of the aspects of Nazi ideology come straight from Romantic philosophy and culture, and those who followed after it. This is perhaps most apparent in the case of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche, a disciple of the idealist Schopenhauer, wrote about a “beyond-human,” the Übermensch, who lives to exercise his indomitable will to become an exemplar in this world, in contrast to those living for some fictional afterlife. The Nazis appropriated these concepts, twisting them from abstract metaphysical arguments to ideological justifications for applied social Darwinism. In this respect, they were aided by Nietzsche’s sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, a nationalist and anti-Semite who embraced the transformation of her brother’s work in a part of the Nazi ethos (or, perhaps more accurately, mythos). After she published a fraction of her’s brother’s notes in 1901, philosophers connected to the Nazis like Alfred Baeumler and Martin Heidegger argued that Nietzsche’s thought constituted a political philosophy anchored on a natural order of hierarchy produced through conflict, a struggle for dominance between differing cultures. Traditional Christian morality and Enlightenment humanism were aberrations, false constructs created to control and constrain the dynamic heroes of the age. It thus falls to the men of remarkable skill and talent to overcome these inhibitions, to accept and fight the primordial struggle for existence, to throw caution and conscience to the wind and achieve ultimate victory. In the words of the Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels:

He who throws the dice for a prize also has to dare a wager, hence we have made Nietzsche’s words come true: ‘Have the courage to live dangerously.’ Obviously major projects cannot be carried out as long as dozens of parties get under one’s feet. These parties don’t make history, they only make a fuss. Today one man speaks for the Reich, and his voice echoes the voices of 66 million people.

320px-flag_of_the_legionary_movementIt this sort of romantic, theatrical approach to politics that makes it possible to understand the Iron Guard’s belief in sacrificing their salvation to achieve Romania’s special destiny. Yet there is another important element lacking from the Nazi context: clericalism. The Iron Guard was led by the fanatically Orthodox Christian Corneliu Zelea Codreanu, who was referred to reverently by his followers as “the Captain.” Iron Guard followers went so far as to distance themselves from politics, framing their movement as seeking a spiritual revolution. In the words of Mircea Eliade, an Iron Guard ideologist, the movement sought “the supreme redemption of the nation, the reconciliation of the Romanian nation with God, as the Captain said… [T]he victory of the Legion will lead not only to the restoration of the virtues of our nation, of a hard-working Romania, worthy and powerful, but also to the birth of a man who is in harmony with the new kind of European life.” (The Iron Guard was originally called “The Legion of the Archangel Michael” and always referred to its members as “legionaries.”) It would be easy to say that the Iron Guard merely used theology as a political instrument, but the obvious contradiction between mercy and committing atrocities reveals something so problematic about such a pragmatic explanation. The truth is that there is no contradiction; members of the Iron Guard accepted their own individual damnation for a greater good, “the supreme redemption of the nation.” Since fascism elevates the nation, the community above the individual, a single soul is ultimately meaningless next to the deliverance of the communal spirit. If this sounds “silly,” as Trillburne put it, it is because all fascism is based on an appeal to faith over reason, emotion over logic.

163px-bundesarchiv_bild_102-04051a2c_reichsparteitag2c_rede_adolf_hitlersWhile the Nazi ideologues dismissed Christian morality, the regime nevertheless had its own faith based around Germanic paganism and the occult. There is no shortage of sensational documentaries or fantastical works of fiction on the topic, but there is basis in fact. For example, the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann found the swastika symbol in the ruins of Troy, claiming it to be a “significant religious symbol of our remote ancestors” — a reference to the now widely debunked belief of 18th century European archaeologists in an “Aryan master race” which had founded all the major civilizations before degenerating into miscegenation. In Mein Kampf, Hitler described the symbol as representing “the victory of the idea of creative work;” in this there are echoes of the Dionysian chaos and religious ecstasy championed by Nietzsche in tension with the order and structure of Apollo, chief tenets of the Enlightenment. One of the qualities of the “noble savage,” so admired in the Romantic era, is an innate goodness, an intuitive sense of right and wrong, who is free to realize his ambitions free from the shackles of “civilization,” “modernity,” the corrupted and decayed social structure and its values.

320px-570_wewelsburgPerhaps no other fascist figure embodies the bourgeois “edge-lord” mentioned by Trillburne as Heinrich Himmler, the Nazi leader of the SS and one of the primary architects of the Holocaust. From a conservative middle-class family, Himmler resented missing the chance to participate in World War I and spent most of his career trying to compensate by organizing an order of elite soldiers, essentially modern knightly Teutonic crusaders, warriors pure in blood as well as ideology. The distinctive lightning bolt runes that constitute SS insignia come from the “Aryo-Germanic” runes invented by the Austrian occultist Guido von List. Wewelsburg Castle, intended to be a holy site for the SS cult, contains a sun wheel mosaic based on the “Black Sun” occult symbol dating from the Germanic migration into Europe during late antiquity. Himmler oversaw the Ahnenerbe (“ancestral heritage”) research society that conducted expeditions to prove the fabricated historical hegemony of the ancient Aryan master race. All this demonstrates that if the Iron Guard mixed their political ideology deeply with Orthodox theology, National Socialism to varying degrees assimilated a form of Romantic adoration for the “noble savage” — in this specific case, invented Aryan ancestors — into their understanding of the world. Moreover, Nazi “true believers” were able to spread this understanding to the majority of Germans, who (even if they did not become zealots themselves) legitimated and treated as valid Nazi claims about the holiness of the German homeland and the preeminence of the German people. They went along with the Dionysian ritual madness of Nazism, embodied in the annual Nuremberg Rallies and their grandiose ceremonies cultivating the worship of Hitler and National Socialism.

320px-donald_trump_alt-right_supporter_283245297460429It may seem facile at this point to compare contemporary widespread political unrest and the resurgence of far-right nationalist politics to the turmoil and rise of fascism in 1930s Europe. Yet, there are indeed parallels between today’s “alt-right” quasi-fascists and those German Romanticists Berlin described as “socially crushed and politically miserable human beings.” Like the Germans of old, today’s Western right-wingers exalt a made-up history of their purity and greatness, an imagined notion of 1950s white suburbia substituting for ancient or medieval German dominance. They blame moral decay on ethnic “enemies” polluting society as well as sacrilegious, unscrupulous left-wingers. Critically, they both also reject the cult of experts described by John Ralston Saul in his Voltaire’s Bastards. There is a shared assault on the technocratic approach to managing politics, economics, and culture governed through insulated, unaccountable, and unethical professional elites (see “Lock her up!” and “Drain the swamp!”). The bitter, angry shopkeeper of the Weimar Republic — so keen to persecute Jews and Bolsheviks to re-obtain national greatness — finds rebirth in the bitter, angry middle-class American eager to attack migrants and “cultural Marxists” to “make America great again.” Again, not every Trump supporter is a white supremacist ideologue, but just as many Germans endorsed Nazi ideology, so too do many Americans legitimize a worldview that sees white Christian Americans as a persecuted group, their superior status restrained by harmful forces that must be purged. Indeed, such a purge is taking place, whether it be in the mass deportations and breaking-up of families by ICE or the badgering of left-wing academics or commentators (the “secular-progressive” enemies in the U.S. “culture war” conceived by the likes of Pat Buchanan and Bill O’Reilly). Never mind that Barack Obama deported more people than any other U.S. president; never mind that many academic disciplines, like political science, are far more divided over theoretical and methodological questions than political ones. The holy wars of the contemporary far-right are no more based in reality than the Nazi crusade against “Judeo-Bolshevism” and other anti-Semitic canards and “Red Scare” tactics.

Again, not a novel observation, but there is an interesting question why today so many people — especially young people, as was the case in 1930s Europe — are turning to the irrational, impassioned politics of the extreme-right and what this says about a deeper, pervasive alienation that is fueling a fusion of liberalism and fascism: hybrid regimes with certain political freedoms and civil liberties but also pronounced nationalism, militarism, and a massive military-industrial economy oriented around endless war. Western hegemony today depends on collaborative institutions, hallmarks of liberal philosophy, but these same institutions — the United Nations, the World Bank, NATO, etc. — are funded and structured in such a way as to ensure Western (particularly U.S.) interests are protected and exploited. In a sense, it is liberalism overlaying a fundamentally fascist approach to power, the “creative victory” of the swastika masqueraded as the organic liberal social contract. Increasingly, however, the right-wing impulse to dethrone the experts, to take back the established institutions into public control to re-purpose them for ideological application, is threatening the status quo. The last time the extreme-right did so, they re-purposed the efficiency and mechanization of the Industrial Revolution from production to annihilation; they industrialized mass murder with the Holocaust. Obviously, ethnic cleansing in the U.S. remains subtle in the form of deportations, mass incarceration of poor people of color, etc. We may not yet be on the precipice of Nazi era genocide. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize where the heartless right-wing romanticism of the past has  led humanity before.

The French Revolution: The Reign of Terror, 1793-1794

The trial and execution of Louis XVI had pushed revolutionary France into a new stage. The 168px-louis_xvi_-_executionurban poor and their leaders had rejected compromise with the old regime; the next step was to tear it down. In the National Convention, the radical republicans like the Robespierre-led Jacobins created bodies meant to turn the unleashing of social tensions into state-directed operations. In March 1793, the Convention established a Committee of Public Safety with a remit for guiding the persecution of political offenders. This occurred just as regular people (especially those in Paris) were becoming more militant. They were anxious about French defeats against Austria and Prussia as well as royalist rebellion elsewhere in the country. The Jacobins were at least taking concrete steps to save the Revolution, whereas the more moderate Girondins, although technically in the majority, had grown out of touch with the public sentiment. Given the stakes, there soon arose a broad coalition of forces eager to remove the Girondins from power and even punish them, as many had voted to spare King Louis from the death penalty for treason – an opening to a charge of clandestine loyalties to the unpopular monarchy.

The Fall of the Girondins

The press spread the charges that the Girondins were traitors. In response, the Girondins sought to use the Revolutionary Tribunal to silence the voices of radical journalists like Jean-Paul Marat and Jacques Hébert. Marat, who was arrested in April 1793, used his trial as a platform to express his views at greater elaboration, and due to his popularity, he was acquitted. From the grassroots, petitions poured in demanding a change in government. When asked to release the radical journalists, one Girondist leader threatened to burn down Paris – echoing a similar threat issued by the commander of the Austro-Prussian army marching on the capital. On May 31, a committee formed and, with the assistance of the National Guard, rose up in revolt and arrested many leading Girondists, including their most prominent name, Jacques Pierre Brissot. Robespierre and his ally Georges Danton had made their bid for power and won it, though less by their own agency than the alignment of their goals with the collective feeling. All their political opponents now removed, the most radical revolutionaries now held sole control over the government.

Danton, as the most charismatic and senior of the radical deputies, faced an excellent opportunity to take state power for himself. Instead, he shaped the Committee for Public Safety from its inception into a powerful body centered on him (to the point where it was known as the “Danton committee”) but recused himself from it shortly thereafter. He believed in the centralization of power that the Committee represented, but did not feel the need to be at its helm.

187px-death_of_marat_by_davidOn July 13, the Girdonists struck back. Charlotte Corday, a Girondist ally, assassinated Marat while he was working in his bathtub, as he often did to his poor dermatological condition. He became the ultimate martyr of the Revolution, at least since its radical turn, and when the revolutionary leaders sought to stamp out Catholicism in society, they often replaced crucifixes and statues of saints with busts of Marat. The famous painter (and friend of Robespierre) Jacques-Louis David left the most iconic image of Marat: a noticeably unblemished figure reclined in his tub, letter still in his hand, as if gone off to eternal sleep while in the midst of working for the Revolution. If the incident martyred Marat, it effectively confirmed all suspicions about the Girondists and thus, to militants, signaled the need for extreme measures in dealing with the Revolution’s foes.

Firstly, the Committee came up with its own constitution for the Republic, which granted universal male suffrage and even granted the vote to foreigners in good standing. It proclaimed popular sovereignty and declared that every Frenchman should be trained as a soldier to defend the nation. In effect, however, the rights conferred by the constitution had to be suspended until France was once more at peace. As long as the Revolution occupied precarious ground, final authority rested in the hands of the Committee. More immediately, the Convention repealed the old policy of requiring the peasantry to pay compensation to the nobility and clergy for the abolition of feudalism. The working classes were set free, but now working men had a right to political participation, and they were no longer still in financial bondage to the classes that had ruled over them in the past.

In July 1793, the leader of the militant Jacobins, Robespierre, was voted onto the Committee for Public Safety. He came to that body just as leaders of the wage-earning sans-culottes were once again demanding economic policies to keep down the price of bread. By September, the government had imposed a price “maximum” and was actively waging war against bondholders and grain hoarders. The Committee decreed the “Law of Suspects,” which permitted the arrest of anyone accused of “bad citizenship,” but was aimed at aristocrats, hoarders and agents of counterrevolution. Marie Antoinette would die in October, followed by around 20 Girondists, including Brissot. In total, approximately 40,000 people would die in the 15-month period commonly known as the Reign of Terror.

Understanding the Terror

The Terror must be understood in terms of social forces as well as ideological motivations. 320px-octobre_17932c_supplice_de_9_c3a9migrc3a9sThe Revolution had to this point witnessed explosions of popular anger, as evidenced by the storming of the Bastille and the royal palace. The sans-culottes had installed the Jacobins in power and were not afraid to thunder their way into the National Convention again. The Terror was as much an expression of their desires as the price controls on bread. The September Massacres of 1792 testifies to this. For decades, the working classes had been subjected to starvation and endless war on behalf of Bourbon claims. Those who profited from this vast inequality now conspired to restore the system that had produced their misery. There was, of course, the looming danger of counterrevolution. Although the execution of Louis XVI had damaged the royalist cause, the nobility could always comb the royal family for an heir. Marie Antoinette had to die too, and this meant there could never be any bargain with France’s German enemies, who had threatened to burn Paris and butcher its population. There was a strong preference for saving the Republic by triaging its most foreboding elements. Of course, given the chaotic situation, how would it be possible to determine a person’s quality of “citizenship,” a new and evolving concept? Not all counterrevolutionaries were arrested with weapons in their hands; to come under suspicion at all entailed death, and if it had not been by the guillotine, than possibly dismembered by a mob.

The Jacobins sought to execute their victims humanely with a legal basis. These were lawyers, after all, who believed in the supremacy of reason and educated justice. Even those who had their reservations about the Terror, like Danton, felt that it was unavoidable that some political prisoners were too dangerous to live. It was only a handful of Jacobins, such as Robespierre, who believed in the (oddly paradoxical) idea of using tyrannical measures to save liberty from tyranny, and that civic duty had to be enforced if it was not genuine. After all, the kings of old had used force to make lords and peasants submit if they would not give their obedience willingly. For example, the royal family had instigated the massacre of French Protestants in the 16th century in order to ensure Catholic supremacy. French colonization in the Americas, while not as ruthless as Spanish or English settlement, still depended on war against Native Americans and the exploitation of slaves. The bourgeois revolution of 1789 had ameliorated the condition of the budding middle class, resolving the contradiction of their political powerlessness with their economic strength. It was not until the 1793 insurrection that the Revolution allowed the working classes to express their grievances. The ongoing scarcity of bread and enormous security crises meant such injustices would be solved ferociously. Emotion was instrumental to the Terror; it was the expression of pent-up resentment for the wrongs of feudalism and anxiety over the future. Previous assemblies had suppressed emotion in politics, or tried to use it to their advantage; the Jacobins were the first politicians to implement official policies representative of the passionate emotions of the people, albeit filtered through state efficiency and bureaucratic planning.

182px-terreur_nantesThis is not to portray the Terror as a spontaneous outpouring of working class wrath. The sans-culottes supported it, mostly, but the Committee implemented it with its own zeal. Robespierre was the most eloquent defender of the Terror, but he was not its only perpetrator. Jean-Marie Collot d’Herbois, an actor turned politician, had more than 2,000 people killed in the city of Lyons, which had risen in revolt. In the Vendée region, the site of the largest royalist rebellion, the Committee supported the republican representative, Jean-Baptiste Carrier, and the mass execution by drowning of thousands of people. So heinous were their crimes that, even after Robespierre and his allies fell, their peers denounced them for their atrocities. Carrier was executed and Collot d’Herbois died in exile. Robespierre has become synonymous with the Terror because one of its aims was to centralize power in Paris and, for the duration of the war, in the Committee. As the spokesman for the Terror, Robespierre became indelibly associated with it. Yet, it was not just his brainchild; many of his peers also felt that dramatic steps were needed, and if the goal of the Terror was to suppress counterrevolution and win the wars, it succeeded. By 1795, revolutionary armies had pacified the civil war in the Vendée. French victories in Flanders marked a turning point in the fight against Austria and Prussia, driving them out of Belgium and the Netherlands. France even triumphed over a joint Spanish and Portuguese army in the Pyrenees. The Committee of Public Safety, a motley crew of radicals and bureaucrats, had overseen a total reversal of the Revolution’s dwindling fortunes.

Critics of the Terror frame it as a utopian project intended to use terror and intimidation to instill new moral (rather than material) incentives. The Terror, they argue, sought to create a new political culture by murdering anyone who resisted it. They describe the Jacobins as zealots deluded by dangerous philosophical doctrines. They treat the cold rationality of the Enlightenment or the romantic ideals of Rousseau as causal variables for the Terror. This is overstated. There were political conflicts stemming from philosophical debates. Some radical revolutionaries, like the journalist Jacques Hébert, wanted to eliminate Catholicism entirely from French society and replace it with system of organized atheism entitled the “Cult of Reason.” Robespierre, however, felt that people needed to look to a higher power, that their civic duty needed to come from virtue. He organized a “Cult of the Supreme Being” and worked to make it the new official faith. These ideological differences, however, did not propel the different factions involved in the Terror. As we shall see, they happened to coincide with the political interests of each group.

In March 1794, the Jacobins had first turned the Terror against their political enemies. Hébert and his followers had emerged as a left-wing opposition, speaking on behalf of the popular movement, with Hébert positioning himself as the heir to Marat. These Hébertistes were arrested went to the guillotine after a brief trial. Around the same time, Danton fell from power over allegations of corruption and financial misdeeds. This was the most difficult challenge for the Jacobins, as they feared Danton would use his charm to turn opinion in Paris to his side. They prevented his speaking in his own defense and sent him and his allies to death as soon as possible. The crisis of the war had permitted the Jacobins the authority to do all this, but it also left them politically secluded. Politicians outside Robespierre’s inner circle feared for their lives, and the friends of Danton and Hébert desired vengeance. Conspiracies formed against the Committee as the spring of 1794 gave way to summer. Ironically, some of the leading conspirators had participated actively in the Terror. Joseph Fouché, who would become minister of police under Napoleon, had overseen the Lyons executions alongside Collot d’Herbois. Jean-Lambert Tallien had instituted the Terror in Bordeaux.

On July 26, 1793, Robespierre attacked his enemies from the floor of the Convention. He 272px-execution_de_robespierre_fullwould not name his specific opponents, which helped galvanize other deputies to join the conspiracies against him rather than risk being suspected by him. The next day, called “Thermidor 9” in the new Jacobin calendar, Robespierre and other Committee members were arrested. Several of his compatriots killed themselves; Robespierre took a bullet to the jaw, but it is unclear whether this was self-inflicted. He went to the guillotine the next day. With his death, the Revolution would lessen in its intensity, drifting into indolence and complacency. Revolutionary France would last a few more years under the Directory, when a young military general named Napoleon Bonaparte would accumulate power before finally seizing it in a coup.

Assessment

Assessing the legacy of the Terror is difficult. It arose from a highly divided political environment and continues to be treated as such. Contemporary critics of the Jacobins described figures like Robespierre, Marat and so on as monstrous, inhuman creatures, and today even “objective” historians adhere to lurid descriptions of their personalities and behavior. What do we discern when comparing the Terror to the historical parallels with which it is most often linked? Most dramatically, the Terror is cited as an inspiration for Hitler’s Holocaust. While there is some overlap in terms of bureaucratic state terror, there is a major difference in motive. The Terror sought to combat an existential crisis with a basis in reality; royalism was not an abstract threat but a very real one, with uprisings and invading armies to prove it. The Holocaust, by contrast, was an ethnic cleansing from Germany and almost all of Europe of Jews, Roma and other groups who posed no danger to Nazi rule outside of Nazi ideology. The Jews were no more a threat to Germany in 1942 than they had been at any other point in history. What about Stalin’s purges in the 1930s? Again, the parallel falters because Stalin was removing potential rivals; his power as head of the Soviet state was essentially consolidated by the mid-1920s, after Lenin’s death. The charges against his fellow Old Bolsheviks had no basis in reality. The purges were meant to prevent a challenge, not as a reaction to one.

185px-labille-guiard_robespierreThe Terror, however, was very much a reaction to an imperiled revolution. Revolutionary France was in a state of civil war as well as at war with foreign powers. Perhaps the best comparisons are to be made with the Russian and Spanish civil wars in the 20th century. In all three cases, relatively moderate center-left governments became discredited, losing popular support, leading to more radical and centralized groups coming to power. The French Jacobins, the Russian Bolsheviks and the Spanish Communists backed by Moscow all rode the waves of undammed rage against the cruel, crumbling regimes they were replacing. In each instance ordinary people stabbed, shot and lynched representatives of the old order: priests, aristocrats, landlords, greedy merchants, and so on. In addition, in each instance, innocent people were caught up in the bloodshed. This is to neither absolve nor condemn the Terror or the Russian and Spanish “terrors,” but to understand such violence as not emerging from ideologues and dictatorships but from humanity itself. When ordinary people are starved and repressed for generations, they generally do not make for peaceful, tolerant citizens when freed.

It bears mentioning that there were “white” terrors in all these revolutions as well. The Spanish Nationalists massacred men, women and children at places like Badajoz and elsewhere. Civilians were bombed indiscriminately at Guernica. In Russia, the White soldiers targeted Jewish towns for pogroms, and the Jewish faith of Trotsky was singled out for propaganda purposes. In the next entry, we will discuss the extent of the reactionary terrorism following the Reign of Terror, including gangs of dandy fops roaming the streets of Paris and picking fights with now downfallen Jacobin supporters.

Interestingly, the three aforementioned cases had all very different outcomes. The Bolsheviks won their civil war and set up a lasting state. The left-wing Spanish Republicans lost their civil war, leading to a lasting pseudo-fascist state. The Jacobins, however, won the civil war but still fell from power shortly thereafter. In Spain’s case, the Republican side faced overwhelming odds because it was isolated, dependent on aid from the Soviet Union, and divided by sectarian differences politically. The Jacobins stamped out any challenges from the left and right and were able to hold onto power, and benefited from inheriting one of the best militaries in Europe (Republican Spain, however, had to fight the European superpower of its day, Germany). The lack of trained officers and proper supply hindered France, but in most other respects, its military remained a potent force. The Bolsheviks, in contrast, found themselves fighting the vestiges of the tsarist military in their civil war, but fortunately for them it was one of the worst fighting forces in Europe, having been decimated in World War I and a disastrous war with Japan. The Bolsheviks did not just outstrip the Jacobins in warfare, however; they were better politicians. The Bolsheviks slowly defanged and purged their rivals after seizing power in October 1917. Lenin even managed to thin the Bolshevik ranks themselves toward the end of the conflict with the Whites. Lenin believed in his cause, but he also possessed a keen sense of timing and management, as reflected by his ability to drag his followers, sometimes at their great objection, through the events that ultimately led to their triumph and the establishment of a socialist state that, ironically, Lenin died before he could truly lead.

Robespierre and the Jacobins had no similar political acumen. They were not, as the Bolsheviks, professional revolutionaries. They were, for the most part, bourgeois intellectuals who believed that the righteousness of their mission would be sufficient for them to see out the Revolution. The Committee of Public Safety was made up of lawyers, bureaucrats, journalists and playwrights who had, just years before, been on the outside the political system. They had no guides but their own ideas. They did not even have the advantage, as Lenin did, of having a historical, scientific political program like Marxism. They depended instead on the highly metaphysical musings of philosophers who pontificated about how the world ought to be (according to them) but with no practical understanding of how to get there. They therefore had no grand solution for uniting the bourgeoisie and the working classes other than the guillotine.

Bibliography

Censer, Jack R. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution. Penn State Press, 2001.

Doyle, William. The Oxford History of the French Revolution. Oxford Paperbacks, 1989.

Hibbert, Christopher. The Days of the French Revolution. William Morrow & Company, 1981.

Hobsbawm, Eric. Age of Revolution: 1789-1848. Hachette UK, 2010.

Kennedy, Emmet. A Cultural History of the French Revolution. Yale University Press, 1989.

Lefebvre, Georges. The French Revolution. Vol. 2. Columbia University Press, 1964.

Linton, Marisa, Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship and Authenticity in the French Revolution. Oxford University Press, 2013.

McGarr, Paul. “The Great French Revolution.” International Socialism 43 (1989): 15-110.

McPhee, Peter. Robespierre: a Revolutionary Life. Yale University Press, 2012.

Palmer, Robert Roswell. Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of the Terror in the French Revolution. Princeton University Press, 2013.

Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. Penguin UK, 2004.

Scurr, Ruth. Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French revolution. Random House, 2012.

Shulim, Joseph I., et al. “Robespierre and the French Revolution.” (1977): 20-38.

Soboul, Albert. “Robespierre and the Popular Movement of 1793-4.” Past & Present 5 (1954): 54-70.

The French Revolution: Interpretations & Causes

We are not supposed to like the French Revolution too much. We acknowledge the virtues of its founding principles, liberal notions that persist to this day: liberty, equality and 320px-octobre_17932c_supplice_de_9_c3a9migrc3a9sfraternity. When it comes to the public killing of aristocrats and royalist sympathizers, however, we condemn the Reign of Terror as an early form of totalitarianism, where the state decides who lives and who dies, who serves the common good and who threatens it. Liberalism praises the slow, organic process of evolution, of gradual reform reached through negotiation and compromise. It opposes the bloody and righteous severing of a new order from the status quo. Such a righteousness crusade, it is claimed, leads to the ends outweighing the means, inevitably resulting in purges and deliberate famines — or even outright genocide. In the popular imagination, the guillotine represents not just the specific time of the Terror, but also an early form of state-sanctioned terrorism. It is the epitome of the state using political violence to quash dissenters and silence critics. In a liberal and pluralistic society such as ours, where freedom of thought and speech are valued, the Terror stands as an aberration, a warning to us that the French Revolution ultimately betrayed its noble goals of bringing France from feudalism to modernity.

The problem with this perspective is that it presumes peaceful pacts toward progress are the norm. The reality is that harsh departures from the past are sometimes necessary. In the context of the French Revolution, the victory of liberal republicanism was not assured; on the contrary, it was under constant and continuous assault by an array of reactionary forces. Noble émigrés, religious peasants, and foreign invaders all desired a return to the traditional feudal system. Moreover, the revolutionaries themselves competed to shape the final product of their social upheaval. Constitutional monarchists, moderate liberals and radical utopians from the middle class shifted between allegiances with aristocratic reformers, the urban poor and starving peasants as they sought to steer the revolutionary state through uncharted waters to the unknown shore of a more just and prosperous society. Unlike “the Party” in George Orwell’s 1984 that desires only power for its own sake, even the most despotic figures in the latter stages of the Revolution believed they were imposing order to lay the foundation for a better world. They wanted to wreck any chance of the old order restoring itself, and while in the short-term they failed, in the long-run they succeeded. They showed that society arranged according to the feudal era was in essence antagonistic to the class relations created by the socioeconomic and cultural changes witnessed in the 19th century. The Industrial Revolution made the French Revolution unavoidable. The French Revolution in turn has undermined the ability of tyrants and oligarchs worldwide to rule, their very regimes constantly called into question.

Monarchs wielded political power after the Revolution (and inexplicably still do in many countries), but never in the same way again. Common laborers, though failing to achieve many of their demands, came away realizing the potential of people power. Most importantly, power in France shifted irreversibly to the bourgeoisie. Although many would become supporters of imperialism (under Bonaparte) or the monarchy (the Legitimists and Orléanists), they believed such regimes would be the best for France, not because they desired to exclude themselves from politics. The French Revolution taught its contemporaries and continues to teach future generations about their ability to affect incredible political and social transformations when adequately organized.

Interpreting the French Revolution

In academia, debate rages over two rival interpretations of the French Revolution. The classic Marxist interpretation, associated with historians Georges Lefebvre and Albert Soboul, describes the Revolution as a bourgeois uprising against feudalism to obtain the economic freedom to develop early capitalism. Revisionist historians like Albert Cobban and François Furet argue that the Revolution did not advance the development of France into a capitalist state, and rather than a equalizing event, regard it as a precursor to totalitarianism. In their view, the Revolution was more about barbarism than progress.

It is rather comforting to find parallels between the killings of the Terror and, say, the 172px-cruikshank_-_the_radicals_armskilling fields of Cambodia. It is easy to lump the two together and condemn them both. This knee-jerk judgement rests on the fallacious presumption that, historically, liberal democracy has relatively little blood on its hands. Truthfully, liberalism was just as violent as fascism and communism in remaking the social fabric, especially in its promotion of capitalism. Marx never wrote about the French Revolution, but he wrote extensively about the blossoming of capitalism. He makes it clear that capitalism and classical liberal views about free trade and individualism did not grow peacefully out of feudalism; they destroyed it and replaced it. We remain ignorant of this fact because textbooks recount the killing of kings and nobles, but are largely silent on the main victims of early capitalism: the peasants and craftsmen who once enjoyed secure places under feudalism.  The turn to commercial agriculture and industrialization that defined the Industrial Revolution uprooted these people and removed their very livelihoods. They could either cling to the old ways or become workers in the new proletariat class. Marx writes eloquently not just about their exploitation under capitalism, but also about their alienation and creation of a false consciousness. People who had at least been connected to their labor under feudalism became unskilled wage-earners. The whole of their economic activity fell under the control of the developing bourgeoisie.

Even in places where the liberal replacement of feudalism went mostly unopposed, such as England and the nascent United States, regular people suffered in the name of capitalist progress. The major difference between those cases and France is that the bourgeois revolutionaries of the French Revolution attempted to create a new society in a matter of years, not decades or centuries. As we shall see, vested interests fought intensely to deny that. In 1800, it was possible for Jeffersonian republicans to lead a political revolution in the U.S., but in 2016, it is easier to imagine an end to the world than a major change to the political or economic system. Similarly, in 1789, the idea of challenging a feudal system that had ruled France for over 600 years was considered extremist and dangerous. That is, however, what the Revolution sought to do, and in so doing, inspired generations of people to question the present order and struggle to create a better world.

We should also consider the path France could have taken had it undergone peaceful reform rather than violent revolution. There is no assurance it would have become a liberal democracy. Barrington Moore touches on this in his seminal work on dictatorship and democracies. In Germany and Russia, the nobility allied with the bourgeoisie to organize industrialization through state-directed initiatives. When those countries underwent revolutions circa World War I, the republics that emerged were too weak to rule, leading to states of alternative ideologies. These states attempted to impose their own systems and principles as the liberal order they opposed, but with the swiftness and audacity of the French Revolution. Many observers take this to mean the French Revolution inspired fascism and Bolshevism. It is more apt to say Bolshevism and fascism were inspired by liberalism and how it forged new views of seeing the world. We often take for granted that the default ideas and systems of today were once considered radical and revolutionary.

The Absolute Monarchy

In order to understand the causes of the 1789 Revolution, it is necessary to consider both long-standing structural problems as well as more short-term crises that prompted a complete social collapse. To start, France was (ostensibly) an absolute monarchy in 1789, with power primarily centralized in the throne. While we might think feudalism is inherently dictatorial, in fact the opposite is true. The cornerstone of feudalism is vassalage: regional counts and barons ruling at the local level, but swearing their fealty to a higher lord. The king (or queen) was at the very top of the social pyramid, but his (or her) rule depended on the continued obedience of the vassals. To keep those vassals mollified, it was common practice for monarchs to extend their nobles special rights. The most infamous of these was the droit du seigneur (or jus primae noctis) that permitted nobles to have sexual relations with their female subjects on their wedding nights. There is no actual proof French lords (or any European nobles) invoked this right. French nobles did, however, exercise rights to rents from those who worked on their estates or domains, as well as a percentage of the crops harvested by peasants on the nobles’ lands.

It was not until the 17th century that the French monarchy began to erode the liberties vassals enjoyed under feudalism. These, of course, were the freedoms that protected nobles from the power of the monarchy. For example, French nobles had been able to take complaints on royal overreach to appellate courts called parlements (not to be confused with English parliaments) that would invalidate regal pronouncements if they infringed on convention. (Compare this to the unwritten constitution that still perseveres in British politics to this day.) The 16th century had closed with wars of religion across Europe, as the Protestant Reformation ruptured the glue that held the feudal order together: Catholicism. Cardinal 290px-richelieu2c_por_philippe_de_champaigne_28detalle29Richelieu, the de facto head of the French government and well-known nemesis to the Three Musketeers in Dumas’ novel, sought to keep France in a strong position on the Continent and to profit from the disorder caused by the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). Local lords were brought to heel and the religious tolerance of Protestants was revoked. Richelieu’s successor, Cardinal Mazarin, furthered these policies until the nobility tried in vain to reassert its power independent from the crown in a series of civil wars that finally ended in 1653. In the meantime, Louis XIV of France, the so-called “Sun King,” grew up as a child king, accustomed to unrivaled power. Under his reign, from 1643 to 1715, France was perpetually involved in wars over succession disputes, expansionism and counter-expansionism. France had become the hegemonic power of early modern Europe and behaved as such, diplomatically and militarily.

The Aristocracy & Bourgeoisie

The French nobility, although having lost some of its autonomy, remained quite powerful. The upper ranks of the military and the clergy, the pillars of absolutism supporting the crown, included only nobles. The most affluent attended the royal court at Versailles, engaged in intrigues and entertainment, living off the taxes and duties leveled on the peasants who worked their land. (Some hereditary peers living in rural areas, however, fared little better than the peasants they lived beside.) For those outside the noble class, it 197px-charles-alexandre_de_calonne_-_vigc3a9e-lebrun_1784was possible to become ennobled through the sale of judicial and administrative offices. In the 17th century, the sale of offices was so common in order to fund constant warfare that, in the 18th century, access to the nobility became much more restrictive. The hereditary nobility had contempt for the bourgeoisie “diluting” their class through the purchase of a savonette à vilain (the commoners’ soap). The bourgeoisie who had already bought their way into the nobility also had incentive to block others from reaching their level, as they wanted their titles to become hereditary as well, securing fortunes for future generations. By 1789, social climbing was still possible, but much more daunting for members of the bourgeoisie. They were paying for the operation of the state, but were excluded from participation: a form of taxation without representation. This was a huge motivation for revolution.

The very nature of the French economy also discriminated against the bourgeoisie. Jean-Baptiste Colbert, finance minister to the Sun King, had implemented a mercantilist system that featured heavy protectionist policies meant to develop French industries by promoting exports and depressing the demand for imports. Although France never equaled the English or the Dutch in foreign trade, the French state became incredibly powerful in terms of state-led production. The early bourgeoisie were thus merged into the existing feudal structure, overseen by a powerful bureaucracy. As a result, legal defenses of property rights and private economic competition did not blossom; on the contrary, the state reigned supreme in economic matters, just as it did politically.

As discussed, members of the bourgeoisie that wanted greater power exchanged trade and 472px-new-france1750commerce for titles and fiefdoms. For example, a financial counselor to Louis XIV, Antoine Crozat, rose from peasant stock to become a wealthy merchant before purchasing the barony of Thiers in 1714. Like many other bourgeoisie of his time, Crozat was heavily involved in France’s overseas colonies. In 1712, he received a royal charter granting him dominion over all trading and moneymaking licenses in Louisiana for 15 years. Sadly for Crozat and other bourgeois colonial overlords like him, the once profitable fur trade in North America had diminished, and colonialism on the new continent never prospered for the French empire the way it would for the United Kingdom. Crozat lost around $1 million even with his trade monopoly in Louisiana. When France lost the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) with Great Britain, the peace agreement stipulated that France turn over control of its North American colonies to the British. (It would later regain Louisiana from Spain, only to sell that territory to the U.S. in the Napoleonic era.) France was humiliated, leaving the feudal system in debt and in doubt. Absolutism and mercantilism had made France the strongest country in the world, but perpetual conflict and divergent class interests had taken their toll. The government could no longer take the “commoners” for granted. Importantly, this materialistic conflict also coincided with an intellectual movement that supplied an impetus to bourgeois reformers to challenge the very character of the feudal regime.

The Enlightenment & Rousseau

Political change in the late 18th century was synonymous with the Enlightenment, a philosophical revolution that sought to bring the rigor and dispassion of scientific analysis to human behavior, including theories of government. Direct experience and concrete evidence became privileged over blind faith and static doctrines. Operating according to reason and rationality, Enlightenment philosophers argued, educated men could rule themselves rather than be ruled by feudal lords or organized religion. The French philosophes included 299px-voltairecandidfrontis2bchap01-1762Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Diderot, the primary editor of the famous secular Encyclopédie, the most famous Enlightenment publication. It embodied the desire to provide general information to the public (or, more accurately, the literate classes.) On political issues, the philosophes opposed arbitrary power or rule through fear and superstition, but fell short of unanimously endorsing participatory democracy and universal suffrage. As men of letters, they believed in their own intelligence and judiciousness, but did not extend this faith to the illiterate, “unenlightened” masses. (It should be noted that U.S. revolutionaries like James Madison, influenced by Enlightenment ideals, argued for the “protection of the minority of the opulent from the tyranny of the minority.”) Most philosophers wanted to remove the obstacles that hindered them from realizing their skills and talents as intellectuals; this was their definition of “freedom.” In terms of enabling the impoverished, uneducated working classes to obtain the same advantages and resources they possessed, the leading lights of the Enlightenment were silent. Still, their strident atheism and devotion to reason pervades all stages of the French Revolution.

The later, more radical Revolutionary period is more accurately tied to the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He was a contemporary of the Enlightenment philosophes, but 190px-rousseau_in_later_lifephilosophically their opposite. In his Discourse on Inequality (1754), he argued that people are innately decent, but that institutions corrupt and degrade them. He admired the “noble savage,” primeval man innocent of education and the sciences, and his ability to live in harmony with the natural world. This looking backward with rose-tinted glasses was anathema to the philosophes. In his commentary on the work, Voltaire wrote: “One longs, in reading your book, to walk on all fours.” Whereas Voltaire and other Enlightenment thinkers saw higher learning as separating man from beasts, Rousseau believed that human morality in the raw state of nature was rough but organic. “Civilized” society brought with it private property, and by extension, inequality and disillusionment. People come into the world without distinctions or obligations; it is society that confers upon them different backgrounds and statuses, dividing them and driving them into competition with each other.

This viewpoint would become the foundation for Rousseau’s chief political work, The Social Contract (1762), which would have an immense impact on the French Revolution. He argued against an elective representative system, calling such a system “elective aristocracy,” and supported democratic rights for everyone, including women. Like Hobbes’ Leviathan, the sovereign for Rousseau is the sum of all individuals coming together and forming the “general will” – the conceptual manifestation of what is in the common interest. Each individual, motivated by virtue, willingly pledges himself or herself to the shared general will, as it comprises rudiments of each person’s desire. If there are incongruities about what should be the general will, these conflicting opinions annul each other, leaving the general will to arise naturally. This spontaneous direct democracy may sound utopian, but Rousseau was a romantic. His emphasis on emotion and virtue expressed an extensive estrangement with the world as it was. Rousseau craved dynamism and change, repressed in a cold and conservative feudal culture, and he yearned to restore the suppressed springs of life. Many shared his restive spirit, and it can be perceived in the sentimental novels and poems of Goethe, Pushkin, Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth and other Romantic artists. As we shall see, many of the most radical leaders of the Revolution (especially the members of the Jacobin Club) regarded Rousseau as their philosophical guide. His political theory was incompatible with the old order; it had to be overturned and destroyed, with a more virtuous popular democracy created in its place.

The role of ideology in social revolution is vital. It is important to consider how a new ruling class attempts to convince other classes to assent to its ethical, political and social values. It was not enough for the bourgeoisie to affirm their economic power in their historical moment; they had to transmit their mindsets through cultural power. As the educated class, 18th century intellectuals made a case for “rule by experts” that is still deployed in modern politics. It is the language of meritocracy: rule by talent, not birth. This argument omits that some people are born with more advantages than others. The thinkers who influenced the leaders of the Revolution articulated a negative liberty that suits the bourgeoisie: freedom from government regulation, censorship, and social immobility. This libertarian mentality is still the one most often deployed in our current politics, where government is constantly criticized for its invasion of our private lives, rather than as a democratic system of empowerment for the people.

Rousseau, however, was a deviation from the norm. He railed against inequality and argued for a positive freedom that would level the playing field in a sort of primitive 135px-rousseau_pirated_editioncommunism. It would be erroneous to draw parallels between Rousseau and Marx’s scientific socialism, as science and Rousseau’s romanticism are integrally conflicting. It is more accurate to compare Rousseau with the utopian socialists that preceded Marx: Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, and Robert Owen. Like Rousseau, these thinkers sought to spread a “new social Gospel” (as Marx and Engels call it in the Communist Manifesto) without paying due diligence to class antagonisms or revolutionary potential. In the manner of other philosophers, Rousseau plucked his idealized republic from his own imagination, more as an intellectual exercise than a program for action. Therefore, it should not be surprising that the social aspect of the French Revolution ran into great difficulty when philosophy was put into practice. The theoretical strength of Rousseau’s work did, however, form a union of bourgeois and working class interests that would take the Revolution in its final decisive direction.

The Petite Bourgeoisie & Peasantry

Minor property holders made up the bulk of the lowest stratum of the 18th century French social hierarchy. The vast majority were peasants, emancipated serfs who owned or rented land and made up the backbone of the agrarian economy. They had to pay noble lords for the “right” to use mills and wine presses required for agricultural production. In the main, they were more concerned with the concrete duties of the state — namely, to provide them with bread and security — than the changing of their social existence. As Marx observed, peasants tended to be conservative, prone to protecting their minor holdings and not putting it at risk. It is an underappreciated fact that the French peasantry were instrumental in moderating the Revolution and bringing the Terror period to an end.

In the cities and towns, factories were still a relatively new development, and the proletarian class was small. There were, however, artisans and craftspeople that produced basic consumer goods. There were also traders and shopkeepers that sold them. Marx referred to this class as the “little” or “petite” bourgeoisie. In the context of the French Revolution, 176px-sans-culottethey are known as the sans-culottes, so called because they wore trousers rather than the knee breeches of the upper classes. In 1789, the bourgeoisie had been so squeezed by war and economic crisis that the “little bourgeoisie” was essentially indistinguishable from common urban laborers. Like peasants, their priority for joining the Revolution was greater economic security and the provision of food at fair prices. The sans-culottes saw the benefits of the philosophical principles espoused by the “big bourgeois,” but their continued support for the revolutionary government depended on whether their more immediate basic needs were met. They were willing to give their support to any government that would intervene in the economy to ensure an affordable price for food, whatever its philosophical principles. If the bourgeois members of the Revolution hungered for freedom, the sans-culottes simply hungered for bread.

Bread and Taxes

In 1774, newly crowned King Louis XVI appointed the economically liberal finance minister Anne Robert Jacques Turgot. Turgot sought to improve France’s economic situation by liberalizing commerce, subscribing to a “laissez faire” philosophy. This included deregulating the grain industry, which was significantly monitored and policed by the state. Grain merchants tended to hoard their grain rather than sell it, inflating the price and raising their profits. They would also dilute flour with other material, including chalk and grinded-up bone. This caused the working classes to riot in 1775, in the “Flour War.” The riots were put down by force. Although the riots indicated the precariousness of the feudal regime, the negative impact of economic freedom on affordable food was a working class grievance, not a bourgeois one. As such, bread alone fell short of cutting across class differences and inducing revolution. The bourgeoisie would not be motivated to commit to insurrection until the monarchy attempted to do the most vile sin in the eyes of bourgeoisie anywhere, everywhere: the government tried to raise its taxes.

France had joined the American Revolution around the same time as the Flour War, 320px-surrender_of_general_burgoyneseeking revenge for the embarrassment England had inflicted on the French by taking France’s North American colonies. The American Revolution succeeded and humbled the English, but it cost France 520 million livres in loans, issued at incredible interest rates. A series of finance ministers all wanted to raise taxes, but French appellate courts all feared higher taxes would place more of a burden on the nobility (especially the bourgeoisie who had bought their way into the nobility precisely to escape taxation). These courts, once rendered irrelevant to royal diktat, reasserted their influence and blocked the increasingly vulnerable crown in its desperate attempt to raise more funds.

To break the impasse, the king assembled the Estates-General, an assembly made up of representatives from the three estates of the realm: those who prayed (the clergy), those who fought (the nobility) and those who worked (the commoners). It had not been summoned for over a century, and it in no way mirrored the complex and multilayered reality of 18th century French society. It did, however, provide an avenue by which the monarchy could, with the help of the old nobility, impose a greater tax burden on the bourgeoisie. The calling of the Estates-General, however, had a major unintended consequence: it gathered the bourgeoisie together and gave them a platform by which they could express their dissatisfaction with the regime. The concerns of the poor masses went unheeded; the delegates of the Third Estate were uniformly called from the “big” and “little” bourgeoisie. As such, the Estates-General was primed for a bourgeois hijacking.

A political pamphlet entitled What Is the Third Estate? by Abbé Sieyès became the unofficial bourgeois manifesto. He called for double representation of the Third Estate – 320px-estatesgeneralthat is, the Third Estate having twice as many members as the other two estates combined. He also asserted that all three estates should meet together instead of separately, as was custom. With votes counted numerically rather than by status, the Third Estate would essentially control the political agenda. The nobility and clergy would essentially have token representation but little influence. Most of the representatives from the Second Estate, parish priests rather than bishops and archbishops, sympathized with the Third Estate. This was because many low-ranking priests were the second or third sons of the bourgeoisie. A handful of nobles also defected to the Third Estate, the most famous being Louis Philippe Joseph, Duke of Orleans. He belonged to a cadet branch of the ruling Bourbon dynasty and supported a constitutional monarchy. When the Third Estate finally met in Versailles, in June 1789, it proclaimed itself a National Assembly. Far from semantics, the bourgeois delegates consciously distanced themselves from the Estates-General and thereby all the trappings of the feudal past. The crown was not amused. Barred from their meeting hall, the Assembly met in a nearby tennis court, and swore the Tennis Court Oath: a pledge to not convene until they had drafted a new constitution for France. Public support swung to the National Assembly, especially in the cities.

Like the 320px-le_serment_du_jeu_de_paumeAmerican Revolution, the French Revolution was posed to be bourgeois revolution. The old system depended on the fruit of capitalism but shunned capitalists. Encouraged by Enlightenment philosophy, the bourgeoisie made a case for society being constituted around them. Despite their conviction, they preferred reform to violence. The Revolution, however, would not proceed as the bourgeoisie alone wanted; they could not impose themselves on the other classes. The monarchy especially would resist the abandonment of feudalism. The nobility, with some exceptions, wanted to retain their feudal privileges and opposed modifying France’s economic orientation, as they were its main beneficiaries, along with the crown. Most nobles feared what would happen if their minor commercial investments had to compete in a more liberal economy. Some open-minded aristocrats favored a constitution to give certain bourgeois freedoms legal backing, but they did not want to be made a secondary or even symbolic element of society. They were “superior” to the “common” people by their very nature, and did not want to be subordinated to them – especially when some noble families had spent decades clawing their way up from peasant or merchant stock into the upper classes. Those nobles that did defect to the bourgeoisie envisioned some form of advisory role for themselves in the new system, similar to the oversight function of the House of Lords in Great Britain.

Storming the Bastille

In July 1789, Louis XVI sacked Jacques Necker, his reformist finance minister. Necker had not respected the Estates-General as anything other than a means toward changing the tax system. It was rumored, however, that he supported political reform if it meant coming closer to resolving France’s major economic problems. The royal dismissal of Necker indicated to the bourgeoisie that the monarchy refused to brook any challenge to its authority. For the working classes, this meant that a suppression of dissent would not be long in coming. They had experienced the pattern over numerous uprisings, including the recent Flour War. The entire Third Estate, bourgeois and laborers alike, realized that the monarchy would use its most powerful extension, the military, to quell any rebellion.

Both groups sought weapons, and it made sense that arms could be found at the Bastille, a medieval fortress prison that stood in the center of Paris. Its presence represented the antiquated, passé ideas of the Middle Ages. In function, it served a state that operated according to dictatorial measures that afforded no respect to the average person. Bourgeois 320px-prise_de_la_bastilleleaders sought to negotiate with the soldiers holding the Bastille, and even accepted an invitation to breakfast with the fortresses’ governor. Apprehension gripped the sans-culottes that were present, however, as time was not on their side. They were acutely aware that the army would start massacring residents in the poorer Paris districts at any moment. The masses fought their way forward, raging through the prison, releasing inmates and seizing gunpowder. Fighting erupted, but the Bastille governor surrendered when the rebels fixed cannon on his men. The raiders killed the governor and placed his head on the bike. Other members of the garrison also died. The Republic rewarded the original Bastille insurgents with medals, and mostly, they were sans-culottes. They had the most to lose if there was a counterrevolution, and thus were the most proactive in wanting to neutralize a potential reprisal by the state. The “big bourgeoisie” may have dominated the Assembly, but it was the “little bourgeoisie” and the urban poor who directed the Revolution from below.

In the countryside, the collapse of central authority throughout July 1789 resulted in the “Great Fear,” major peasant revolts that featured improvised farmer self-defense leagues commandeering manor houses. Peasants feared that, with all the unrest in the capital, they would continue to be ignored unless they took matters into their own hands. They also knew that by taking control of noble estates that they would be massacred if the Revolution failed. In the meantime, bandits would exploit the lawlessness of a divided France to prey on the vulnerable peasantry. All this chaos led to the hysterical hoarding of weapons and property. Bit by bit, the regular people of France were dismantling the old regime and throwing their support behind the National Assembly. The slate had been cleared; the question became what new system should be created in place of the old one.

Bibliography

Bouton, Cynthia A. The Flour War: Gender, Class, and Community in Late Ancien Régime French Society. Penn State Press, 1993.

Campbell, Peter. Power and Politics in Old Regime France, 1720-1745. Routledge, 2003.

Chartier, Roger. The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution. Duke University Press, 1991.

Cobban, Alfred. The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution. Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Collins, James B. The State in Early Modern France. Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Darnton, Robert. The Literary Underground of the Old Regime. Harvard University Press, 1982.

Furet, François, and Mona Ozouf. A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution. Harvard University Press, 1989.

Hibbert, Christopher. The Days of the French Revolution. William Morrow & Company, 1981.

Kaplan, Steven L. Bread, Politics and Political Economy in the Reign of Louis XV. Anthem Press, 2015.

Lefebvre, Georges. The French Revolution Volume I: from its Origins to 1793. Columbia University Press, 1962.

Lüsebrink, Hans-Jürgen, and Rolf Reichardt. The Bastille: A History of a Symbol of Despotism and Freedom. Duke University Press, 1997.

McGarr, Paul. “The Great French Revolution.” International Socialism 43 (1989): 15-110.

McPhee, Peter, ed. A Companion to the French Revolution. John Wiley & Sons, 2014.

Moore, Barrington. Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World. Beacon Press, 1993.

Moote, A. Lloyd. The Revolt of the Judges: the Parlement of Paris and the Fronde, 1643-1652. Princeton University Press, 1971.

Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. Penguin UK, 2004.

Steel, Mark. Vive La Revolution. Simon and Schuster, 2003.

Soboul, Albert. The French Revolution, 1787-1799: From the Storming of the Bastille to Napoleon. NLB, 1974.

Treasure, Geoffrey Russell Richards. Richelieu and Mazarin. Psychology Press, 1998.

 

Arab Anomie: Ideology in the Middle East

With the West still reeling from the Brussels attacks and the war in Syria launching 320px-aqmi_flag-svganother refugee crisis, the Middle East and radical Islam remain constant features of headlines. An underappreciated fact about current events is the role of ideology, and how nationalism has given way to political Islam in much of the region. To understand the motivations of Islamists and the failure of liberals to triumph in the wake of the Arab Spring, it is valuable to look at regional history and understand how the decline of pan-Arabism and the poverty of liberalism has combined into the rise of Islamism and, in extreme cases, jihadism. Such examination shows that many of the present problems cannot be attributed to Islam or even political Islam as an ideology, but the ignorance of the West of its errors and its unwillingness to reign in local actors who are using sectarian and ethnic conflicts for their own benefit in a scramble to accumulate more influence.

In the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire instituted the Tanzimât reform era, bringing about a constitutional system followed by political liberalization. These political developments inspired Al-Nahda, the “awakening,” an intellectual movement that spread throughout the Middle East. The Lebanese author Jurji Zaydan wrote a plethora of historical novels meant for ordinary people. These heroic tales, directed at a general audience, inspired many Arabs to develop a shared identity, a pan-Arabism, that became a powerful force in the movement to secure the independence of Arab states. Dominated by the Ottomans and Western powers, these countries – Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Iraq – had produced educated, passionate intelligentsias who aspired to “catch up” their countries’ development to the hegemons that ruled them. As Benedict Anderson points out in Imagined Communities, these intellectuals selectively chose norms and events from their respective histories to craft a social cement strong enough to unite repressed peoples against their oppressors. That distinction could (and still can) be drawn between Levantine, Bedouin and North African cultures faded from importance as post-colonial politicians dreamed of grand Arab republics.

Although largely forgotten by most Westerners, pan-Arabism achieved short-lived 320px-flag_of_the_arab_league-svgsuccesses in the foundation of the United Arab Republic and the Arab Federation (the 1958 unions of Syria and Egypt and Iraq and Jordan, respectively). Northern and southern Yemen did merge, although the current civil war being fought there imperils that legacy. Nevertheless, these events prove what an instrumental power pan-Arabism had in Middle Eastern state-building post-World War II, when many of these states finally obtained autonomy. You can also perceive its importance by the fact that the Baath Party, strongly oriented toward Arab nationalism, held power in Iraq before the 2003 invasion and still does in Syria.

This last fact should indicate that pan-Arabism has shifted toward opposing U.S. hegemony in the region. There are several reasons for this. The first is the most obvious: nationalist ideology is predicated on national sovereignty, and U.S. foreign policy is defined by intervention abroad on behalf of its interests, be they strategic or economic. Accordingly, the U.S. favors “liberal” politicians who opt for pragmatism over passion, perhaps best embodied by the market reforms of Deng Xiaoping in China: “it does not matter if a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice.” This explains the second motivation for U.S. antagonism: nationalism fosters exclusion and conflict. There are groups within the nation and without; there are people who rightly occupy national territory and those who do not. Trade and conflict flow best in the absence of war and violence. U.S. policies, grounded as they are in liberal values, has no gods before cooperation and collaboration, and encourages its allies to smash the false idols that hinder integration into the global economy and its culture. That the U.S. presently dominates both that economy and that culture is not at all a separate issue.

The death of nationalism in the Arab world has led to a vacuum increasingly filled by radical Islam, a “pan-Islamism” in contrast to pan-Arabism. The central tenet of such movements is that Muslims have fallen back into godless ignorance (Jahiliyya) and that the Islamic world must be redeemed and return to religious law. These movements are fueled by oppressive regimes at home, whose arbitrary use of power could have once been justified by the goal of building strong Arab states, but which now seem only meant to benefit the ruling class. In Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser founded a military state in 1952, but commanded public support because of his mission of creating a free self-sufficient state, unaligned in the Cold War. By 2011, Nasser’s military state remained, but his successor’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, aspired only to line the pockets of his friends and groom his son to replace him. In Syria, too, the Assad regime once strived to represent the rural segments of the country, the poor people in the hinterlands far from the prosperity of Damascus and Aleppo. Now, however, the regime seeks to enrich itself, to fit into the upper classes rather than redistribute wealth. The Assad family and its closest associates belonged to a small religious minority, the Alawites, but even this group can no longer count on patronage. Without the carrot of nationalism to dangle before the people, many regimes in the Middle East have relied on the stick: the harassment, detention and torture of dissidents who seek to organize resistance against these autocratic regimes.

These regimes have created in their countries what the sociologist Emile Durkheim termed “anomie” – an alienation borne from missing moral standards and communal connections. Islamic groups capitalized on this through the provision of a strong moral code (sharia law) and public goods and services, such as through hospitals and schools. The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, emerged as the most potent political force after the 2011 downfall of the Mubarak regime, in no small part due to its history of social work. The Taliban, a much more extreme Islamist organization, brought a sort of justice to lawless areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, exploiting resentments toward weak or unwilling state institutions. Of course, it must be noted that all Islamist groups also have a weapon in framing their enemies as immoral, even evil. These “enemies” include both native tyrants like Mubarak or Bashar al-Assad, but inevitably also include Western governments and multinational corporations, especially those in the U.S.

There is an undeniable religious element to this framing, in the sense that Western culture is generally more progressive and tolerant in its social values. Feminism, multiculturalism, freedom of religion and speech – these, at least in theory if not absolutely in practice, are widely lauded in the West and detested by most Islamists, as is the case with most social conservatives. Yet, this framing is not completely religious in nature. During the Cold War, the U.S. (along with the Soviet Union) endorsed despotic regimes across the developing world (including western Asia), leading their victims to connect the crimes of the local strongman to the foreign benefactor. Once the Cold War ended, these same regimes adopted the political and economic liberalizations the U.S. increasingly made conditional on access to financial aid and loans. This led to windfalls for local elites as public utilities were hived off to the private sector, while most of the public languished in unemployment and growing income inequality. There were cultural effects as well, as Hollywood movies, Western fashion and American fast food flooded these ripe new markets. As in the West, citizens were becoming consumers, but frustrated ones, without the disposable income to imitate their Western counterparts. Denied material wealth, they have turned increasingly to the moral nourishment offered to them through Islamist ideology.

“Ideology” rather than “Islamist” is key here, because there is nothing inherently sinister or devious about Islam as a social force, regardless of the xenophobic cottage industry that has emerged around the faith. Political Islam, like nationalism before it, acts as food for the soul, to lift up those who are suffering to believe that a better world is possible. Communism, too, once had a similar effect across the world, although it never flourished in the Middle East (so-called “Arab socialism” was merely state capitalism in the service of nationalism). Laborers and intellectuals alike organized, fought and died for the promise of a classless future. Most notably, in the 1930s, communism and specifically its opposition to fascism galvanized volunteers from outside Spain – the International Brigades – to join the Spanish Civil War and risk their lives in a conflict that, for them, had entirely ideological incentives. In the 1940s, communism (along with nationalism) assisted the disparate peoples of the Soviet Union to rally against the horrors of a German invasion to reserve disastrous defeats into the demise of the Nazi state.

Under contemporary liberalism, however, there is no ideological glue permeating society, no larger calling or cause applicable to all people. There is no alternative vision rather than the status quo, which is so vague as to defy any real categorization. We claim to be capitalists, yet leading industries and economic sectors are symbiotic with and nurtured by the state. We claim to be democrats, but public participation is largely low through the West, and while we support the idea of democracy, actual satisfaction with democracy is low worldwide. We champion “freedom,” yet across the West, government surveillance has been on the rise, not the decline, and even then, “freedom” is seen as negative: freedom from the state, freedom from censorship, etc. We expect our politicians not to lead us, exactly, as we are each on our own individual paths. We would prefer that politicians merely manage us, ensuring indirectly our health and wealth, but also remaining as unobtrusive as possible in our daily interactions.

This sort of political philosophy suits advanced industrialized economies firmly at the center of the global economy, but does not perform well in places where the status quo is objectionable and illegitimate in the eyes of most of the population. In the Middle East, then, the hope that liberal politicians and “moderate rebels” would prevail in the aftermath of the Arab Spring has proven naïve at best, and also catastrophically wasteful for governments like the U.S. who have tried, in vain, to fund pro-Western forces in places like Iraq, Libya and Syria. Liberalism on its own cannot cut across ethnic and religious cleavages like actual ideologies can. With its emphasis on the atomized individual, it simply misses the message of community featured prominently in nationalism, communism, or political Islam. The great liberal philosophers, from Locke to Montesquieu, emerged from political environments where national independence was not realistically threatened and political liberalization had occurred organically. Liberals may not always be part of the ruling class, but usually they represent the privileged class.

The lesson from this is that we cannot realistically expect the present strife in the Middle East to be resolved in accordance with Western interests. The success of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and jihadist fighters in Iraq and Syria demonstrate that, in different circumstances, political Islam has an important social capital advantage over liberalism. For this gap to be overcome it would be necessary for secular institutions within civil society to supplant political Islam as an organizing force; with the exception of perhaps Tunisia, the single Arab Spring success story, this sort of outcome has yet to materialize. In colonial times, institutions geared toward human development were neglected, while those institutions needed to enforce order (security agencies, the military) were strengthened. The nationalist visionaries who inherited these bodies did little to correct this imbalance, as political order, in their view, had to precede social justice. With social justice now no longer viable in these times of austerity and disappearing states, it becomes much more conceivable how some Arabs might throw in with reestablishing a caliphate rather than reforming their current states.

What can Western policymakers do about anomie in the Middle East? They should do very little in terms of ideology. Stuffing Western norms and values down Arab throats was part of the problem, never the solution. We would be better served by seriously considering that question posted after the September 2001 terrorist attacks: “Why do they hate us?” Antipathy toward Western hegemony, globalization and foreign policy adventurism has not been sufficient alone to cultivate radical Islam and terrorism, but they have been instrumental in recruitment towards those causes. Unfortunately, current policies toward ISIS and terrorism – drone strikes, economic sanctions, bombing campaigns – will likely only incite greater resentment to the West. It is doubtful that the West will able to chart a new framework toward the Middle East until it is fully prepared to admit and analyze the missteps and deliberate pain it has inflicted on the region.

While it may be too late for the West to win the war of ideas, there is still meaningful action it can take. The strife in the Middle East has less to do with the sectarian and ethnic differences there and more to do with the meddling of regional powers like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran, all of whom have exploited these divisions from Baghdad to Baalbek to assert dominance in the local balance of power. Ideology may be food for the soul, but actual resources remains a primary ingredient for the mobilization of social movements. For various geopolitical reasons, however, the West has been disinclined to take action against those states pulling the purse strings of these social movements. This may begin to change, however, as jihadists begin to threaten the states patronizing them. Saudi Arabia may have an interest in boosting Sunni power abroad, but it has no desire to welcome home the jihadists who will be stateless once the Islamic State is defeated. If the Taliban manages to retake power in Afghanistan, much of the blame will be placed on Pakistan for failing to root them out of its western provinces. In the meantime, though, the West should come up with ways to utilize its substantial soft power and economic might to induce these major players from performing their own “great game” in the Middle East, which has been the source of so much agony and misery in recent years.

The Russian Civil War: 1918-1920

In November 1917, the Bolsheviks had taken power in Russia, toppling the crumbling Provisional Government and replacing it with their own interim administration. They shared power with the left-wing breakaway faction of the Socialist Revolutionaries (the SRs), the party of the farmers, and thus claimed to represent both the industrial proletariat as well as the peasantry. Yet their place in government was not secure. Socialist moderates, including the Mensheviks and right-wing SRs, refused to recognize the Bolshevik regime, even though the Second Congress of the Soviets had sanctioned it. Moreover, the time for the long-promised Russian Constituent Assembly had come, and although the Bolsheviks dominated the soviets throughout Russia, they did not expect to win a majority in a national poll. The elections went ahead just three weeks after the Bolshevik seizure of power, with over 40 million votes cast under equal suffrage with secret ballots, the first of its kind in Russian history (MacKenzie and Curran 1997, p. 145). As predicted, the SRs achieved a majority, with the Bolsheviks coming in second with a quarter of the votes. In the Bolshevik newspaper, Pravda, Lenin reacted by claiming that a soviet republic transcended a bourgeois assembly as a “higher form of democracy,” and in light of the ongoing class struggle unfolding from the revolutions, the candidates chosen to stand in the election did not truly represent the will of the people (1917a). The Constituent Assembly met for one day in January 1918, electing Chernov, the former SR minister of agriculture under Kerensky, as its president. The following day, the Bolsheviks dispersed the new legislature by force. In truth, indignation about the fate of the assembly limited itself to its moderate members. When moderate socialists later attempted to use the incident as a rallying cry in their civil war against the Bolsheviks, they found that most peasants knew nothing about it.

For anyone who paid attention to the pronouncements of the Bolsheviks, the rejection of electoral politics came as no great shock. Most considered themselves revolutionaries, not politicians, and their mission was to construct a socialist society, not compromise and accept half-measures with those who did not have the stomach to demolish the status quo. Like Robespierre and the Jacobins, they recognized that virtue without force behind it is powerless; they therefore needed to use force to pursue their aims and overcome the class enemies. They founded the All-Russia Extraordinary Commission for the Struggle with Counterrevolution and Sabotage, commonly shortened to Cheka, under the direction of the Polish Bolshevik Felix Dzerzhinsky. In his memoirs, the revolutionary Victor Serge (2012) criticized the creation of the Cheka, explaining that reactionary threats made the Bolsheviks “lose their heads” and that even Dzerzhinky considered the group “half-rotten” due to “psychological perversion.” Many of its members had been humiliated and tortured by the Imperial government, and thus were prone to paranoia and violence (p. 94). Initially a set of small squads tasked with internal security, the Cheka combated the looting and rioting that had understandably broken out during the revolution. Intended as an extension of popular power, its relative independence from other institutions contributed to its subsequent growth in power and autonomy, leading to the unchecked activities that would make the Cheka so feared during the civil war.

Before discussing the civil war, however, we should explore how the Bolsheviks ended Russian involvement in the world war started in part by the tsar. Shortly after taking power, the Bolsheviks issued the Decree on Peace, calling for immediate peace without annexations or reparations (Lenin 1917b). This of course did not appeal to Russia’s enemies, but politically it showed the Bolsheviks were serious about seeking the peace, unlike their predecessors. Following a preliminary armistice, Lenin later proposed a separate peace with Germany and the Central Powers, but met with stiff opposition from most of his party. Most still assumed that revolutions would erupt throughout Europe, having witnessed Bolshevik success, and that Russia could conclude peace with fellow socialist governments. When this did not transpire, some militant Bolsheviks like Bukharin called for a “partisan war” not involving opposing formal armies but instead with guerilla fighters waging a battle of attrition against the enemy governments (Hosking 1985, pp. 60-61). Lenin, however, claimed that the revolution needed temporary “breathing space.” Trotsky, heading the peace negotiations as commissar for foreign relations, remained true to his theory of permanent revolution, opposed Lenin and broke off the bargaining. As the Germans advanced on Petrograd, however, most Bolsheviks shifted to Lenin’s position, and in early 1918, negotiations resumed. The resulting Treaty of Brest-Livotsk saw Russia cede the Baltic territories and the entire Ukraine to German occupation. This proved too much for the Left SRs, who quit the Bolshevik government in protest. This left the Bolsheviks alone against their foes.

The Czechoslovak Legion was a small unit within the Imperial Russian Army composed of Czech and Slovak volunteers who hoped that their valor and sacrifice in World War I would earn their homeland its independence from the Austrian Empire. When they ended Russian participation in the war, the Bolsheviks permitted the Legion to join their compatriots fighting in France, as the Legion wanted to continue the war. Unfortunately, sending the Legion through Russo-German lines was not an option, so the Legion had to travel along the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Vladivostok, Russia’s main Pacific port, where it would sail across the ocean to Western Europe via the United States. In May 1918, in a town just east of the Urals, an incident involving Legion soldiers and Austrian-Hungarian POWs led to the Legion taking control of a Russian city and firing on Bolshevik forces. Whether Britain and France pressured the Legion to take up arms against the Bolsheviks is unclear, as is whether the Bolsheviks faced similar pressure from the Central Powers to disarm the Legion. What is apparent is that once the Legion started the conflict, the Allies capitalized on the opportunity to re-open an Eastern Front with Germany and at the same time bring down the Bolsheviks in Russia (Mawdsley 1987, pp. 46-49). At any rate, the Legion used control of the telegraph system to obtain effective control over the Trans-Siberian Railroad, the main form of transportation in Siberia. After turning over most of their western territory to the Germans, the Bolsheviks now saw their enemies also controlled most of Russia east of the Ural Mountains.

Meanwhile, in southwestern Russia along the Don River, a hodgepodge of liberal democrats, disillusioned SRs and Imperial military officers rallied together, loosely united by their hostility toward the Bolsheviks. The “Whites” to the Bolshevik “Reds,” they formed a Volunteer Army under the leadership of General Mikhail Alekseyev, formerly the tsar’s chief of staff, as well as Lazr Kornilov, Anton Denikin, Sergey Markov, and other former high-ranking officers of the Imperial Army. Their experience made them a formidable fighting force, but their disparate ideologies and identities translated to a slow mobilization, and they initially only numbered several thousand strong. Bolshevik militias sent to crush them drove them south toward Kuban, and the Whites made an “ice march” over the frozen steppe. They attempted to take the city of Krasnodar, the capital of a new soviet republic in the north Caucasus, but failed, with Kornilov killed by artillery (ibid., pp. 20-21). Nevertheless, southwest Russia remained under the control of the Whites, leaving the Bolsheviks concentrated in the central region of European Russia. However, since this region was the most populous and the most industrialized, they retained important advantages in terms of recruitment and resources to supply their troops.

The Bolsheviks’ main fighting force, the Red Army, originally operated according to the model set by the Red Guards militia, with no ranks and officers chosen by elected committees. While suitable perhaps for guerilla war, this structure could not withstand the German offensives that had occurred between the Brest-Livotsk treaty negotiations (Hosking 1985, pp. 66-67). In early 1918, the Bolsheviks appointed Trotsky as the new head of the Red Army, qualified as he was from his time covering wars as a journalist and his experience as chair of the Petrograd Soviet’s military committee. Controversially, he reinstated several traditional military practices, such as conscription, the death penalty for desertion and the appointment of officers, including those from the former Imperial Army. He used political commissars to ensure these officers remained loyal to the revolution and to keep the regular soldiers passionate about their cause (Kort 2006, pp. 128-129). As one might assume, some of these tsarist officers defected to the Whites in the course of the civil war, but the majority remained faithful. Many historians highlight the practice of holding officers’ families hostage, but the Bolsheviks typically did not have to resort to violence. Most officers acted according to pragmatism, realizing that whatever their feelings about socialism, the Bolsheviks controlled the state, and the state supplied them with food, shelter and other needs (Mawdsley 1987, pp. 60-61). When the Reds gained the upper hand as the war progressed, what began as a dispassionate allegiance of convenience normalized with the absence of any real alternative. Trotsky of course faced no small amount of criticism from some of his fellow Bolsheviks for his changes, but he cited the centralism at the center of Leninist doctrine as justification, and mostly concerned himself with directly intervening on the front lines when needed. Traveling in an armored train, he would give speeches to demoralized or deserting troops, inspiring the Red Army to keep up the fight.

Fight they did, as events snowballed throughout 1918. Emboldened by the Czechoslovak rebellion, some Socialist Revolutionary politicians set up rival governments in western Siberia, in the cities of Samara and Omsk. They called for the re-establishment of the Constituent Assembly, but in many other ways, their policies were just as radical as the Bolsheviks. For most of 1917, they had cooperated with the Bolsheviks in government, and their political beliefs revolved around land redistribution and other programs popular with the peasants. This association drove a wedge between the SRs and the tsarist troops upon which they depended to conduct the civil war. By the fall, these tsarist officers and Cossacks led a coup that installed Admiral Alexander Kolchak as their “supreme ruler” with Allied support (MacKenzie and Curran 1997, p. 151). The ousted SRs fled Russia, effectively ending their relevance in the revolution. The Whites had no time for socialists of any stripe, and in many cases, actively attempted to undo the land reforms implemented by socialist politicians and the peasantry. They also earned the enmity of various nationalists with their promises of restoring an absolute empire with political power and cultural control once more centered around Russia. Their close ties to the Allies provided them with valuable equipment and supplies, but it also gave credence to Bolshevik charges that the Whites were the puppets of imperial powers (Kort 2006, pp. 125-126). The Whites’ scattered dispersion along the Russian periphery and their relative scarcity compared to the Reds hindered them the most, but their total distaste for politics and neglect for the popular mood, even when they came the closest to possibly winning the war, certainly did not do them any favors.

In the beginning of 1919, Kolchak joined forces with Yevgeny Miller, a tsarist officer who had declared himself Governor-General of Northern Russia, based in the northwest city of Arkhangelsk. This offensive stalled, and by the end of the summer, an overextended Kolchak retreated to Siberia and Miller, abandoned by British troops sent to assist him, faced the Red Army alone. In the Baltic region, General Nikolai Yudenich, also with British aid, came close to taking Petrograd in the fall, but in the end could not overcome the city’s defenders. At the same time, Anton Denikin led the Volunteer Army up from the Caucasus, conquering much of southern Russia and the Ukraine, and came within two hundred miles of Moscow. He spread out his forces too much, however, and moved too fast, losing control over his advance. These factors helped contribute to his defeat by a largely improvised Bolshevik counterattack (Mawdsley 1987, pp. 202-207). As 1920 dawned, the Whites were defeated and in disarray. The Czechoslovak Legion, having missed the end of World War I, turned Admiral Kolchak over to the Bolsheviks and purchased passage out of Russia with what remained of Kulchak’s treasury. The Reds executed Kulchak, ending the White threat from Siberia. Yudenich’s subordinates arrested him after he was caught trying to embezzle military funds before escaping. His British benefactors arranged his release. Meanwhile, Denikin fled to Europe, living out the rest of his life as an émigré, a common fate for many other White survivors.

Despite the White downfall, war persisted into the next year. In the spring of 1920, Polish nationalists under Marshal Josef Pilsudski attacked the western Ukraine and seized Kiev in May. The invasion had both offensive and defensive aims: to expand “Greater Poland” along its eastern border and to prevent preemptively a reassertion of the Russian yoke over the Poles by creating a sort of “buffer zone.” The Red Army, under the ex-tsarist commander Mikhail Tukhachevsky, led a counterattack, securing victory after victory. Soon what had started as a reaction to Polish aggression transformed into a Bolshevik plan to bring the Poles socialism by force. This entailed beating the defeated Polish forces west in the hopes that the coming of the Red Army would spark a socialist revolution in Poland, causing the long-awaited domino effect of other such revolutions through Western Europe. However, this turned out to be a serious miscalculation. Much as the Whites had been driven too far too fast by their dreams of taking important Russian cities, the Red Army push to Warsaw stalled along the Vistula River and the Bolsheviks had to seek an unfavorable peace with Pilsudski in 1921 (ibid., pp. 257-260). In the meantime, Denikin’s successor, Pyotr Wrangel, briefly set up a White proto-government in the Crimea. Upon reaching peace with Poland, the Red Army crushed Wrangel’s forces, sending him and his followers scrambling across the Black Sea. The civil war was finally over.

Both the Reds and Whites engaged in political violence between 1918 and 1920. Unlike with the Bolsheviks, however, the Whites resorted to brutality out of instinct rather than from ideology. Kolchak himself wrote that many Whites had “no conscience, no sense of honor or duty, only a cynical spirit of competition and money-grabbing” (Hosking 1985, p. 66). With the exception of Wrangel, none of the White leaders showed any interest in administration, and even if they had, most did not hide their hatred for Russian intellectuals, the majority being socialists, thus ensuring the character of the White forces was all military and no ministers. The Whites fed themselves by looting, which itself was not remarkable given the country’s depletion from years of world war and then civil war. In the Ukraine, however, the Whites added a layer of anti-Semitism to their raiding, carrying out pogroms against the Jews there. White propaganda fueled this hatred, depicting Bolsheviks and Jews as synonymous, with special emphasis given to Trotsky’s Jewish heritage (Figes 1996, pp. 676-677). This echoed in many ways themes later witnessed in Nazi propaganda, when Hitler justified the persecution of the Jews as a response to Bolshevism and the “threat” of socialism. According to documents released from the Russian archives, over 150,000 Jews died due to the White pogroms, with the wounded bringing the number closer to 300,000 (ibid., p. 679).

Figes describes the cruelty:

In the town of Fastov the Cossacks hung their victims from the ceiling, releasing them just before they choked to death: if their relatives, who watched this in terror, could not pay up the money they had demanded, the Cossacks repeated the operation. The Cossacks cut off limbs and noses with their sabers and ripped out babies from their mothers’ wombs. They set light to Jewish houses and forced those who tried to escape to turn back into the fire. In some places, such as Chernobyl, the Jews were herded into the synagogue, which was then burned down with them inside. In others, such as Cherkass, they gang-raped hundreds of pre-teen girls. (p. 678)

Two arguments frequently arise to justify or at least excuse the “White Terror.” The first is that the generals did not directly order it, while the second argues that the historical moment required callousness. To the first point, research shows that under Denikin the death penalty was in effect not just for Bolshevik party members, but also for anyone who had participated in workers’ councils or collaborated in the 1917 revolution (Bortnevski 1993, p. 363). This could be interpreted to mean even regular Russians “guilty” of voting for delegates to represent them, or as we have seen from White propaganda, Jews with no actual connection to politics whatsoever. Additionally, even if the White officers had not commanded the Jewish pogroms, they also did not do much to prevent them from occurring, which they could have done easily, given the highly regimented and even authoritarian nature of the various White regimes. Documentation exists of White generals ordering pogroms, but none where those generals stepped in to stop the raping and murder. As to the second rationalization, individuals of all nationalities from all time periods have used “war is hell” to justify all assortments of war crimes, and if we reject this excuse in the present when it is employed to hand-wave the shooting of civilians or the desecration of corpses, why should we accept it in regards to White abuses?

The “Red Terror,” too, was neither mere indulgence nor a collective hardening of the heart to the civil war. In reality, it was an eruption from below by the those downtrodden and dispossessed by feudalism and early capitalism, a social leveling that drew upon the traditions of peasant communes and a enduring mistrust of the propertied classes. Those that argue that terror is a necessary ingredient of Bolshevism suggest that socialism created the mass terror from whole cloth, but it did not. The “Red Terror” had its origins in the social order that fell apart in 1917. In just the 20th century alone, the Russian state had starved the masses, driven them to exhaustion in the factories, and sent them east and west to die in wars that had to do more with imperial pride than national security. It did so while also denying them political inclusion on the basis they were too ignorant, too wild and too primal to make the “right” decisions. What is remarkable about the “Red Terror” is not that it happened, but that it was so long in coming, when one considers both the relative size and strength of the masses to their masters, as well as the great lengths the Russian state went to impose its will over the working classes. Granted, the Bolsheviks provided the people with the institutions of the “Terror” – the secret police, the people’s courts, the seizure of private property – but the terror itself came from tensions of inequality and repression as old Russia itself. Whereas the anti-Semites among the Whites tormented and slaughtered the Jews for imagined roles in fictional conspiracies, the punishments, however savage, meted out to the Russian upper class had its roots in genuine mistreatment and subjugation. Men and women, quite free of any communist coercion, named their daughters “Terrora” to celebrate what they viewed as an overdue reckoning (Figes 1996, pp. 522-525).

This is not to say that the Bolsheviks played no part in fomenting political violence; on the contrary, it had been a central component of their political program for many years. As Trotsky (1920) put it, the “Terror” was a “direct continuation” of the armed uprising of late 1917, the revolution removed from theoretical tracts and applied to the real world. Their isolation and extreme position on the political spectrum also left the Bolsheviks with an onus to prove themselves true to their words, not just to bolster their integrity, but also to discredit and destroy their rivals on the left as well as the right. They had been clear about their intentions from the beginning. Lenin, upon hearing in late 1917 that Kamenev had endorsed abolishing the death penalty, asked: “How can you make a revolution without firing squads? Do you expect to dispose of your enemies by disarming yourself?” (Figes 1996, p. 630). With the slogan, “Loot the looters!” he heartened the impoverished to take the property of the upper classes by force. Data from the Russian archives also supports the theory that the execution of the deposed tsar and the imperial family came from a direct order from Lenin rather than, as has been speculated, a spontaneous decision by local party members (ibid., pp. 635-639). Just as an “innocent tyrant” is an oxymoron, Lenin and most Bolsheviks believed that a class war without political violence was a contradiction in terms. For a new society to emerge, the old one had to die.

Of course, not all of the Bolshevik bloodletting came from politics; some of it was indeed about survival. In July 19, Left SR rebels showed their dissatisfaction with the Treaty of Brest-Livotsk by assassinating the German ambassador in a bid to restart the conflict. When the Cheka demanded the assassins turn themselves in, the Left SRs briefly took control of Moscow before being defeated, the ringleaders imprisoned. In the autumn of that year, a Socialist Revolutionary named Fania Kaplan attempted to assassinate Lenin outside a Moscow factory, seriously wounding him. On the same day, another anti-Bolshevik socialist killed the head of the Chekists in Petrograd (Mawdsley 1987, p. 80). These attacks came from the Bolsheviks’ erstwhile allies; one can only imagine what would have befallen them had the Whites been successful in capturing Petrograd or Moscow. Regardless, most of the political prisoners placed in monasteries-turned-concentration camps were not enemy combatants, but merely class enemies. Inmates in Cheka jails could be anyone, from politicians to professors, from priests to dissident peasants, even children. In some cases, they were Bolsheviks themselves, denounced in trivial quarrels by friends and strangers (Figes 1996, pp. 642-643). The “Terror” was not a systematic process operating with military precision for a military objective; it was, as is to be expected given its social origins and the anarchy of the civil war, often disordered and indiscriminate, driven by dogmatic goals as by the concerns of war.

The exact number of people killed in the “Red Terror” remains unknown. The Cheka officially claimed it executed 6,300 people across 20 provinces during the civil war (Mawdsley 1987, p. 83). Figes (1996) puts the figure at “several hundred thousand” if one includes those who died in the prisons along with those killed in anti-Bolshevik revolts (p. 649). Precise figures are impossible because for most of the “Terror” no one held the Cheka to account. In early 1919, it was brought under the Commissariat of Justice, but in reality, it remained answerable only to those on the Bolshevik central committee, where Lenin actively protected it. Some high-ranking Bolsheviks like Bukharin and Kamenev frequently criticized the Cheka for its unrestrained behavior, and the Russian writer Maxim Gorky was perhaps the most prolific and outspoken opponent of the “Terror.” To these censures and reproaches, Lenin remained adamant that the mistakes of the Cheka, whatever they might be, were worth it to preserve the welfare of the workers’ state. “What injustice,” Lenin wrote sarcastically. “A few days, or even weeks, in jail for intellectuals in order to prevent the massacre of tens of thousands of workers and peasants!” (ibid., pp. 678-679).

Understanding the “Red Terror” is easy; judging it is hard. Knowing even a little about what the poor and vulnerable endured through most of Russian history makes even the excesses against the elite plausible. Yet is it acceptable? To the modern liberal mind, it is generally not. The notion of believing in any political doctrine fully, even one based in scientific rigor as Marxism claims to be, is alien to the average 21st century mind. That one might use such a doctrine to justify killing political opponents or class enemies is even more inconceivable. From youth we learn to treat politics as being about concessions and rough calculations, so that “the perfect is not the enemy of the good.” For the Bolsheviks and their followers, they demanded nothing less than perfection, the establishment of the world’s first truly socialist society, with the prior edifice ripped away to its very foundation. They were so committed to the enterprise they not only took power by force, but also endeavored to use that power even when fenced in by their enemies with prospects of their survival dubious. They remained true to their intentions when other actors would likely have bent or even broken for the sake of saving their own skin. Mawdsley (1987) argues that the short-term stability brought by the “Terror” did not outweigh the long-term costs later used against the Bolsheviks, stating that the “Terror” played a large part in Western antagonism toward the Soviet Union. This is doubtful, given what we know about the opposition of the West to any anti-capitalist government, peaceful or otherwise, around the world. Moreover, this sort of pragmatic calculus adopts the modern perspective the Bolsheviks did not share. For them their long-term concern was not propriety or foreign relationships, but instead following through on the revolutionary activity that had seen them in and out of prisons and exile for most of their adult lives. They had endured beatings, torture and years away from loved ones in the name of an ideal, one they could only realize by tearing apart the very system that had persecuted them for so long and perpetuated injustice everywhere. Recent history proves that being kind and trusting to those who profit from plunder and state-sanctioned rule-breaking does not bode well; protecting the corrupt elites is arguably just as cruel to the masses as permitting the masses to exact bloody revenge on those same elites. Granted, in a truly faultless system, the elites would not repress the working classes, or vice versa. An important thing to note is that decision-makers behind the “Terror” believed such a world was possible and claimed to be working towards it, while the decision-makers of today say such a world is fantasy and that exploitation and alienation is the unpleasant but natural state of man under capitalism. There is no perfect world, liberals say, just one better than all the others. The Bolsheviks, for all their sins, believed otherwise.

Works Cited

1. Bortnevski, Viktor. 1993. “White Administration and White Terror (The Denikin Period).” Russian Review, 52(3), pp. 354-366.
2. Figes, Orlando. 1996. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
3. Hosking, Geoffrey. 1985. The First Social Society: A History of the Soviet Union From Within. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
4. Kort, Michael. 2006. The Soviet Colossus: History and Aftermath, Sixth Edition. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.
5. Lenin, Vladimir. 1917a. Theses On The Constituent Assembly. Retrieved from http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/dec/11a.htm
6. Lenin, Vladimir. 1917b. Report on Peace. Retrieved from https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/oct/25-26/26b.htm
7. MacKenzie, David and Michael W. Curran. 1997. Russia and the USSR in the Twentieth Century, Third Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.
8. Mawdsley, Evan. 1987. The Russian Civil War. Boston, MA: Allen & Unwin.
9. Serge, Victor (2012). Memoirs of a Revolutionary. Trans. Peter Sedgwick with George Paizis. New York, NY: New York Review Books.
10. Trotsky, Leon (1920). Terrorism and Communism. Retrieved from http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1920/terrcomm/