Revolutionary terror

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Jun 19 12:23:19 MDT 2001

Boston Review | April/May 2001

The Furies: Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions
Arno Mayer
Princeton University Press, $28 (cloth)

by Corey Robin

Few episodes elicit from contemporary historians so much outrage as the
French and Russian revolutions. Richard Pipes's many histories of the
Bolsheviks condemn everything from Lenin's depraved character to the
corrupt motivations of Pipes's scholarly opponents. François Furet's
studies of the French Revolution are filled with delphic censures of
Jacobin paranoia and utopian ideology. This denunciatory zeal has not
jeopardized historical vision-if anything, it has inspired some of the
finest work of a generation. But the antagonism of these scholars toward
their subjects points to the central insight of Arno Mayer's The Furies:
there can be no revolution without counterrevolution, for every revolution
inevitably summons the fury of its detractors.

Mayer, an emeritus Princeton historian, seeks to temper this hostility
toward revolution, or at least to counter the most damning claims of
contemporary scholars about the origins of revolutionary violence. Pipes
and Furet argue that terror was not an incidental or prophylactic measure
reluctantly taken by revolutionaries against genuine enemies. Pipes points
out that the Bolsheviks created the Chekha, the brutally repressive
precursor to the NKVD and KGB, before any opposition to their rule had
coalesced; Furet demonstrates how the Jacobin terror persisted after the
French army improved its position in the European theater. They conclude
that because revolutionary violence did not track the realities of
political conflict, violence must have been the essence of these
revolutions. Their leaders resorted to terror either because they were
ideologues or because, as Pipes says of Lenin, their "dominant political
impulse was and remained hatred." As Simon Schama, echoing Furet, writes in
his book Citizens, "In some depressingly unavoidable sense, violence was
the Revolution."

Mayer, by contrast, minimizes the role of both ideology and the personality
of the revolutionaries. Violence, he argues, resulted from seismic
collisions of old order and new. Recent historians have lost sight of the
tenacity of the old regime, how its defenders refused to bow to the new
revolutionary order-and how much of the violence stemmed from
confrontations between the two. Indeed, Mayer demonstrates, some of the
bloodiest episodes of both revolutions occurred as old animosities-between
Christians and Jews, Catholics and Protestants, and contending groups in
the countryside-turned into armed antagonisms. Where Pipes and Furet see in
revolutionary violence the great sins of modernity-ideological grandiosity
and nihilism-Mayer finds the toxic residue of premodernity: the resistance
of the old regime, the eruption of ancient hatreds, and the destabilizing
effects of civil and international war.

Mayer boasts a long record of intellectual provocation. His first studies
of the Versailles Treaty, Political Origins of the New Diplomacy and
Politics and Diplomacy of Peacemaking, demonstrated in exacting archival
detail how the Entente's fear of Bolshevism and domestic social upheaval
inspired the liberal internationalism of the victorious powers. In The
Persistence of the Old Regime, he attacked the widely held assumption that
the European bourgeoisie came into its full glory at the end of the
nineteenth century and was the driving force behind that era's militarist
politics and culture. Instead, Mayer argued that the old regime and its
defenders dominated the European stage until at least 1918, and perhaps
even 1945. And in Why Did the Heavens Not Darken?, a controversial analysis
of the Holocaust, Mayer argued that a combination of vicious anticommunism
and frustration over the Wehrmacht's defeats on the Eastern Front fueled
the extermination of the Jews.

The Furies, too, contains a provocation: "The struggle between the ideas
and forces of revolution and counterrevolution was a prime mover of the
spiraling violence inherent to the French and Russian revolutions." Thirty
years ago such an observation would have been unexceptional. Historians
believed that lines of conflict and allegiance during these revolutions
reflected distinctions of class or material interest-and because the
combatants were fighting over concrete resources, there was little doubt
that the revolutionaries confronted genuine enemies.

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Louis Proyect
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