The 2016 Elections, The ‘Bernie Revolution,’ And A Familiar Pattern

In The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789-1848 Eric Hobsbawm  writes:

In brief, the main shape of…all subsequent bourgeois revolutionary politics were by now clearly visible. This dramatic dialectical dance was to dominate the future generations. Time and again we shall see moderate middle class reformers mobilizing the masses against die-hard resistance or counter-revolution. We shall see the masses pushing beyond the moderates’ aims to their own social revolutions, and the moderates in turn splitting into a conservative group henceforth making common cause with the reactionaries, and a left wing group determined to pursue the rest of the as yet unachieved moderate aims with the help of the masses, even at the risk of losing control over them. And so on through repetitions and variations of the pattern of resistance—mass mobilization—shift to the left—split among- moderates-and-shift-to-the-right—until either the bulk of the middle class passed into the henceforth conservative camp, or was defeated by social revolution. In most subsequent bourgeois revolutions the moderate liberals were to pull back, or transfer into the conservative camp, at a very early stage. Indeed…we increasingly find…that they became unwilling to begin revolution at all, for fear of its incalculable consequences, preferring a compromise with king and aristocracy.

Hobswawm was writing these words in 1962–about the post-Bastille, pre-Jacobin, pre-Terror, French Revolution–so he knew well of what he spoke. He could well have been speaking of contemporary times and politics, of the American election season of 2016, and its ‘revolution that did not come to be’ – the Bernie Sanders Insurgency.

On November 9th, American liberals and progressives of a particular bent will wake up to find out they’ve been snookered yet again by the Democratic Party, by the same old trick that has been reliably used to make sure the minds and attention of their reliable voting demographics will not go wandering, looking for alternatives. Their support for the ‘Bernie Revolution’ earned them little other than the abuse of their own supposed ‘comrades,’ the ‘liberal’ coalition that backs Hillary Clinton’s candidacy: they were reviled as sexist, tainted by white privilege, as unrealistic nihilists.  They were urged to make cause with their political foes, urged to pull back from the brink to which they were marching the nation; they were urged to settle for a chance to ‘pull Clinton to the left,’ to get ‘their demands written into the party platform.’ Meanwhile, that mythical creature, ‘the moderate Republican’ was also persuaded to join the Clinton Coalition. That fundamentally conservative bent in American politics–which reveres that undemocratic document, the US Constitution, which claims American exceptionalism is a wholly understandable and justified attitude–asserted itself all over again, all the better with which to discredit the nascent stirrings of a mass movement (which in its populist strains found some curious resonances in the groups who supported Donald Trump’s candidacy.)

When the smoke clears, for all the sound and fury of this interminable season, little will have changed: the Republican Party will have disowned Donald Trump and gone back to its reactionary ways; the Democratic Party, having long ago moved into territory occupied by the Right, will pat itself on its back for having performed a remarkable act of sheepdogging. A familiar pattern indeed.

The Convenient Construction Of The Public-Private Distinction

Revolutions are public affairs; revolutionaries bring them about. They fight in the streets, they ‘man’ the barricades, they push back the forces of reaction. And then, they go home for the night, to a meal and a warm bed. There, they rest and recuperate, recharging the batteries of uprising, ready to battle again the next day. Revolutionaries are men, doing the real work, out in the public sphere; their home fronts are staffed by women, whose job is to sustain the revolution’s domestic aspects.

In The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1985, pp. 57-58), David P. Jordan writes:

Although Robespierre was most at his ease in the midst of bourgeois domesticity, he depended upon others to create such an environment for him. Left to himself, he would have perpetuated his solitude in bleak rented rooms. It is worth noting that he fought the Revolution from the comfort of a bourgeois home. His passivity, his willingness to have others look after him, bespeaks an indifference to the mundane. He knew nothing of the marketplace; in Paris, as it had been in Arras, food awaited him at table, including the fruits he adored. Similarly, he knew nothing of the conditions of the desperately poor, with whom he never fraternized extensively. And there is no record that he ever went next door at the Duplays’ to talk to the carpenters in the shop. [citation added]

“An indifference to the mundane.” The home is the site of the mundane, the ordinary, the dull and dreary. Outside, the public sphere, where the non-domestic happens, is where the extraordinary takes place. That is the zone of men, the revolutionaries; the home is where women (and perhaps some servants), like a pit-stop crew, get the smooth machine of revolution up and running again with an oil and tire change for the body and mind. The revolutionary, from his lofty perch, can look down on and disdain these mundane offerings, the labor underlying which is not worthy of recognition in manifestos intended to stir the masses to action.

The excerpt above is drawn from a book published in 1985, two years after Carole Pateman‘s classic feminist critique of the public-private dichotomy appeared in print.¹ It shows in paradigmatic form, the standard (male and patriarchal) construction of the public-private distinction in political theory. The ancient Aristotelean understanding of polis as sphere for politics and civic life and home as venue for a much lower form of life persists here. Jordan does not make note of Robespierre’s detachment from the domestic with approval, but he does not find anything problematic in it either; instead, it appears as the sort of bemused indifference that we associate, quite romantically, with artists, writers, poets, and others too intent on cultivating their creativity to be bothered with the ‘mundane’ particulars of life. In this history, the public fray rises above domestic scurrying; the men hover above the women below.

Note 1: Carole Pateman, ‘Feminist Critiques of the Public/Private Dichotomy,’ in Public and Private in Social Life 281,281 (S. I. Benn & G. F. Gaus eds., 1983)

Robespierre On The Iraq War

In 1792, Revolutionary France debated, and prepared for, war. It was surrounded by monarchies who cared little for this upstart viper in the nest; and conversely, a sworn “enemy of the ancien regime” could not but both despise and fear what lay just beyond its borders: precisely the same entity in kind as was being combated at home. War often seemed inevitable in those days, and it would come, soon enough, on April 20th, when France declared war on Austria. But Revolutionary France, true to its spirit, devoted considerable time and energy to debating the decision to continue politics by such means.

Some, like the war’s most “categorical…passionate [and] persuasive” proponent, Jacques Pierre Brissot, “imagined war rallying the country behind the Revolution and forcing the duplicitous King [Louis XVI] either to support the war and the Revolution or reveal his counterrevolutionary intentions.” But just as important, was the “crusading” aspect of the war:

War would carry liberation to the oppressed peoples of Europe, groaning still under the despotism France had thrown off. [Jordan, pp. 84]

The most passionate opponent of the war was Maximilien Robespierre. His denunciation of war plans had many dimensions to it. They remain remarkably prescient and insightful.

First, Robespierre noted that “during a war the people forget the issues that most essentially concern their civil and political rights and fix their attention only on external affairs.” Because war is conducted by the “executive authority” and the military, during war, the people direct “all their interest and all their hopes to the generals and the ministers of the executive authority.” Such slavish devotion to those in power–especially since in conducting the war, Revolutionary France would have been “fighting under the aegis of the Bourbon Monarchy”–results in a characteristically eloquent denunciation: War is “the familiar coffin of all free peoples.”

But it was the “crusading” and “utopian” aspect of the war that seemingly most troubled Robespierre, for in it he could detect an internal incoherence. The vision of lands and peoples invaded by Revolutionary France welcoming their conquerors struck him as risible:

The most extravagant idea that can be born in the head of a political thinker is to believe that it suffices for a people to enter, weapons in hand, among a foreign people and expect to have its laws and constitution embraced. [It is] in the nature of things that the progress of reason is slow [and] no one loves armed missionaries; the first lesson of nature and prudence is to repulse them as enemies.

Robespierre did not waver from this conviction. A year after France had entered that period of its history which would be characterized by almost incessant outbreaks and declarations of war, Robespierre wrote that “One can encourage freedom never create it by an invading force.”

The historical illiteracy of those who declared war on Iraq is oft-commented on; here is yet more evidence for that claim.

Note: This post is cribbed from David P. Jordan‘s The Revolutionary Life of Maximilien Robespierre (University of Chicago Press, 1985, pp. 82-86; all quotes and citations originate there.)

Robespierre On The Iraq War(s)

Robespierre, in a speech to the Jacobin Club, which began on 2 January 1792, and concluded on 11 January, responding to the Girondins call for war:

[T]he most extravagant idea that can arise in the mind of a politician is the belief that a people need only make an armed incursion into the territory of a foreign people, to make it adopt its laws and its constitution. No one likes armed missionaries; and the first counsel given by nature and prudence is to repel them as enemies….start by turning your gaze to your internal position; restore order at home before carrying liberty abroad….reviving through beneficent laws, through a character sustained by energy, dignity, and wisdom, the public mind and the horror of tyranny, the only things that can make us invincible against our enemies…war, war, as soon as the court asks for it; that tendency dispenses with all other concerns, you are even with the people the moment you give it war;….Why distract public attention from our most formidable enemies, to fix it on other objects, to lead us into the trap where they are waiting for us?

During a foreign war, the people…distracted by military events from political deliberations affecting the essential foundations of its liberty, is less inclined to take seriously the underhand manoeuvres of plotters who are undermining it and the executive government which is knocking it about, and pay less attention to the weakness or corruption of the representatives who are failing to defend it….When the people demanded its rights against the usurpations of the Senate and patricians, the Senate would declare war, and the people forgetting its rights and resentments, would concentrate on nothing but the war, leaving the Senate its authority and preparing new triumphs for the patricians. War is good for military officers, for the ambitious, for the gamblers who speculate on these sorts of events; it is good for ministers, whose operations it covers in an impenetrable, almost sacrosanct veil….it is good for the executive power, whose authority, whose popularity and ascendancy it augments….The sort of man who would look with horror on the betrayal of the homeland can still be led by adroit officers to run its best citizens through with steel.

The remarks on war are, of course, more generally applicable.

My posting the passage above is of a piece with a time-honored tradition of showing us that when it comes to the relationship between war, patriotism, militarism, the corruption and mendacity of the ruling class, and the state in any shape or form, it is always the ‘same as it ever was.’

Source: Slavoj Žižek presents Robespierre: Virtue and Terror, Verso, 2007, pp 31-32. The introduction to the Extracts from ‘On the War’ notes that:

Brissot, the leader of the ‘Brissotins’ (Girondins), intervened in the Legislative Assembly in favour of war. On 29 December, he maintained that ‘the war is necessary to France for her honour….The war is a national benefit.’ On 30 December he spoke of a ‘crusade of universal liberty.’

CLR James on the ‘Surprisingly Moderate’ Reprisals of the Haitian Revolution

Here are two very powerful passages from CLR James‘ classic The Black Jacobins: Touissant L’Overture and the San Domingo Revolution (Vintage Books, second edition revised, New York, 1962, pp. 88-89):

The slaves destroyed tirelessly. Like the peasants in the Jacquerie or the Luddite wreckers, they were seeking their salvation in the most obvious way, the destruction of what they knew was the cause of their sufferings; and if they destroyed much it was because they had suffered much. They knew that as long as these plantations stood their lot would be to labour on  them until they dropped. The only thing was to destroy them. From their masters they had known rape, torture, degradation, and at the slightest provocation, death. They returned in kind. For two centuries the higher civilisation had shown them that power was used for wreaking your will on those whom you controlled. Now that they held power they did as they had been taught. In the frenzy of the first encounters they killed all. Yet they spared the priests whom they feared and the surgeons who had been kind to them. They, whose women had undergone countless violations, violated all the women who fell into their hands, often on the bodies of their still bleeding husbands, fathers and brothers. “Vengeance ! Vengeance” was their war-cry, and one of them carried a white child on a pike as a standard.

And yet they were surprisingly moderate, then and afterwards, far more humane than their masters had been or would ever be to them. They did not maintain this revengeful spirit for long. The cruelties of property and privilege are always more ferocious than the revenges of poverty and oppression. For the one aims at perpetuating resented injustice, the other is merely a momentary passion soon appeased. As the revolution gained territory they spared many of the men, women, and children whom they surprised on plantations. To prisoners of war alone they remained merciless. They tore out their flesh with redhot pincers, they roasted them on slow fires, they sawed a carpenter between two of his boards. Yet in all the records of that time there is no single instance of such fiendish tortures as burying white men up to the neck and smearing the holes in their faces to attract insects, or blowing them up with gun-powder, or any of the thousand and one bestialities to which they had been subjected. Compared with what their masters had done to them in cold blood, what they did was negligible, and they were spurred on by the ferocity with which the whites in Le Cap treated all slave prisoners who fell into their hands.

The italicized line is footnoted as follows:

This statement has been criticised. I stand by it. C.L.R.J.

I can imagine some of the contours of this criticism: How could you defend rape and murder and pillage? The killing of babies? The savage treatment of prisoners?

James offers a defense in the same passage and it is interestingly plausible.  The slave revolt, the uprising, was bound to be a convulsion, a shaking-off, one that could not but, given the history of their oppression–described in gruesome detail in Chapter 1–result in some reprisals. But this striking back would not be, and perhaps couldn’t be, anything more than a brief spasm of cruelty and anger, a cathartic and horrible outpouring of accumulated anger and grief. It would not be followed by enslavement and the systematic, prolonged brutality the slaves had been subjected to. The violence inflicted on the slaves was directed at the perpetuation of a very particular system of control; that which the slaves directed at their masters was a momentary outburst.  The mutilations, floggings, rapes, and live roastings–among other humiliations and obscenities–the slaves had suffered were to ensure the breaking of their spirit, the assertion of owner privilege; they were the visible features of an ideology of utter and total control. They broke bodies and minds alike. The cruelties of the retaliation meted out by the slaves, in contrast, appear as a momentary expression of revenge, the passions underlying which, hopefully, would soon subside. There is nothing systematic, nothing codified, about them.

These considerations do not, I think, condone the violence but they do put them into some perspective.

(Coded) Messages in Bottles

As part of his continuing series on free speech in Asia, Timothy Garton Ash turns his attention to Burma–the land of military juntas and Aung San Suu Kyi–and points us to some deft work to get around its censors’ pen:

Thirteen years ago, editors of tiny magazines in dim, cramped offices showed me examples of the crudest precensorship by the authorities: individual phrases or whole pages had to be blanked out, or hastily replaced with advertisements. This was the age of the hidden message, of the Aesopian, with even an article on the proliferation of mosquitoes in Rangoon banned by the censors as suspected allegory. Sometimes, editors got away with little triumphs, like the November 2010 First Eleven magazine headline, in this soccer-mad country: “SUNDERLAND FREEZE CHELSEA UNITED STUNNED BY VILLA & ARSENAL ADVANCE TO GRAB THEIR HOPE.” First Eleven submitted this to the censors in black and white, but published it in multiple colors. The letters in bright red spelled out “SU…FREE…UNITE…&…ADVANCE TO GRAB THE HOPE….” Su—that is Aung San Suu Kyi—had just been released from house arrest. The captain was back.

This little bit of crypto-messaging reminded me of yet another cloaked message, in another context and country and age, pointed out by Christopher Hitchens:

In the year 1798, seeking to choke the influence of French and other revolutionary opinions in their own “backyard”, the British authorities jailed the radical Irish nationalist Arthur O’Connell. As he was being led away, O’Connell handed out a poem of his own composition that seemed to its readers like a meek act of contrition, and a repudiation of that fount of heresy, Thomas Paine:

I

The pomp of courts and pride of kings

I prize above all earthly things;

I love my country; the king

Above all men his praise I sing:

The royal banners are displayed,

And may success the standard aid.

II

I fain would banish far from hence,

The Rights of Man and Common Sense;

Confusion to his odious reign,

That foe to princes, Thomas Paine!

Defeat and ruin seize the cause

Of France, its liberties and laws!

If the reader has the patience to take the first line of the first stanza, then the first line of the second stanza, and then repeat the alternating process with the second, third and fourth lines of each, and so on, he or she will have no difficulty in writing out quite a different poem. (How much the British have suffered from their fatuous belief that the Irish are stupid!)

Such a construction yields, of course:

The pomp of courts and pride of kings

I fain would banish far from hence,

I prize above all earthly things;

The Rights of Man and Common Sense;

I love my country; the king

Confusion to his odious reign,

Above all men his praise I sing:

That foe to princes, Thomas Paine!

The royal banners are displayed,

Defeat and ruin seize the cause

And may success the standard aid.

Of France, its liberties and laws!

Generals and their Strategies: Patton and Napoleon on the Koran

Today, on my new Tumblr (samirchopra.tumblr.com) I posted two quotes on the Koran (or the Quran, take your pick). The first, by George S. Patton:

Just finished reading the Koran—a good book and interesting. (George S. Patton Jr., War As I Knew It, Bantam Books, 1981, page 5. War Diary for North Africa landings ‘Operation Torch’, 2nd November 1942)

Patton wrote these lines on board the USS Augusta as the Western Task Force headed for landings on Morocco to enter into battle with French Vichy Forces. (Operation Torch was an attack on French North Africa, ostensibly to remove  Axis forces from North Africa, improve Allied naval control of the Mediterranean and aid in the preparation, hopefully, of an invasion of Southern Europe in 1943.) He appears to have read the Koran as part of a self-imposed ‘backgrounder’ in Morocco’s history and culture. In his diary entries that follow, Patton keeps up a stream of commentary on Morocco’s culture and institutions, but shows little evidence of applying any particular principles gleaned from the Koran. There is, however, a note of a conversation with the Sultan of Morocco–during a meeting held after the surrender of Vichy forces–in which Patton’s reading of Koran might have helped:

When the initial conversation had terminated, he informed me that, since we were in Mohammedan country, he hoped the American soldier would show proper respect for Mohammedan institutions. I told him that such an order had been issued in forceful language prior to our departure from the United States and would be enforced. I further stated that since in all armies, including the American Army, there might be some foolish persons, I hoped that he would report to me any incidents of sacrilege which some individual soldier might commit.

Patton’s reading of the Koran then, appears to be a self-edificatory strategy: to equip himself with knowledge that would aid him in an understanding of a country, whose population was almost entirely Muslim, and which he would soon administer as a military governor.

The second quote is from Napoleon Bonaparte:

I hope the time is not far off when I shall be able to unite all the wise and educated men of all the countries and establish a uniform regime based on the principles of the Quran which alone are true and which alone can lead men to happiness. (Letter to Sheikh El-Messiri, (28 August 1798); published in Correspondance Napoleon edited by Henri Plon (1861), Vol.4, No. 3148, p. 420)

Napoleon being Napoleon, this drawing upon, and citing of the Koran, is more interesting. It foreshadows Napoleon’s concordat with the Catholic Church in 1801, which reinstated most of the Church’s civil status in France, his assembling the Jewish Grand Sanhedrin in 1806 and his establishing Judaism as one of the official religions of post-revolutionary France in 1807.  For Napoleon, religion was yet another arrow in his quiver, one that would aid in efficient rule. For a man who so easily moved from the military to the political and back again, this stocking of his arsenal would have been the proverbial no-brainer: a good general always calls upon all available resources in winning a battle or waging a protracted campaign.